(New York) – The weeks before Egypt’s parliamentary elections are scheduled to start on November 28, 2011, have been marked by repeated violations of free expression and free assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Over the past nine months, military and police officers have forcibly dispersed peaceful protests, arrested demonstrators and bloggers for criticizing the military, and failed to uphold the rule of law in policing operations, Human Rights Watch said.
Before the first round of a three-stage parliamentary election cycle, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled Egypt since the February 11 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, should take steps to improve security and protection of basic rights during the vote, Human Rights Watch said. Ahead of the vote, SCAF should cancel emergency laws that curb assembly and allow for mass detention without charge or trial, order an end to military trials, stop harassment of bloggers and other critics of the government, and permit free, peaceful assembly.
“Egyptians need to feel safe when they go to vote – to know they can criticize the authorities and still be protected by the security forces,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Removing Mubarak from power is not a substitute for ensuring the basic rights of Egyptians, whatever the generals might think.”
Freedom of Assembly and Policing
Almost from the moment Mubarak left power, the SCAF and the cabinets it has overseen tried to limit Egyptians’ right of assembly. On March 24,the cabinet decreed a ban on strikes and demonstrations that “impede the work of public or private institutions.” Since then, soldiers and police have broken up at least seven large demonstrations in Tahrir Square using excessive force, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented excessive use of force by military police in breaking up peaceful demonstrations on February 25, March 9, April 9 and August 1. The military has failed to investigate or hold anyone to account for any of these incidents of excessive use of force.
On June 28 and 29, riot police in Cairo engaged in a 16-hour street battle with stone-throwing protesters, illegally shooting teargas into the crowd at shoulder-height, which resulted in more than 114 injuries. On October 9, soldiers and central security forces cracked downon a peaceful march of mainly Coptic Christians toward the state television building in central Cairo, shooting some, running over others with careening armored cars, and killing at least 25 people. The demonstration was protesting persistent discrimination against Copts and the failure to protect Christian houses of worship from attack. The police break-up of a November 19 sit-in led to six days ofviolencewhere military police and riot police beat unarmed protesters, used live ammunition, indiscriminately fired tear gas into crowds, and fired rubber bullets and pellets at protesters’ heads.
Human Rights Watch also documented numerous occasions when military police and riot police allowed and at times encouraged armed civilians, possibly hired thugs, to attack other civilians. On October 9, civilians armed with sticks stood with military police and threw stones at peaceful protesters. Eyewitnesses described to Human Rights Watch how a line of armed civilians stood in front of the military and attacked unarmed protesters. On July 27, a march from Tahrir Square to the ministry of defense in Abbasiyya turned violent when hundreds of armed civilians standing with military police threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the protesters. Witnesses in Alexandria have described similar tactics, in which civilians with sticks waded into crowds of fleeing protestors, grabbed stragglers and beat them during demonstrations from November 19 to November 26.
Human Rights Watch documented the use of live ammunition by security forces against protesters. Fourty-one protesters have been killed in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Hospital and morgue officials confirmed to Human Rights Watch that live ammunition caused most of the deaths, with other deaths caused by asphyxiation from teargas and fatal injuries from rubber bullets fired at close range.
Given this record, and the violence that accompanied Egyptian elections in 2005 and 2010, authorities need to ensure that management of security for the elections is consistent with human rights standards and protects the right of Egyptians to freely choose their representatives, Human Rights Watch said.
Freedom of Expression
The Mubarak government frequently used overly broad provisions in the penal code to crack down on criticism of the government’s policies and human rights record, trying editors, opposition leaders, and activists on charges of “insulting the president” or “insulting public institutions.” The military government and courts are today using the same provisions.
Military prosecutors have summoned at least nine activists and journalists, to question them on charges of criminal defamation after they publicly criticized the SCAF, or alleged abuses by the military. Since the departure of Mubarak in February, authorities have prosecuted and jailed demonstrators and bloggers for expressing controversial ideas or criticizing military rule, beginning with Maikel Nabil, sentenced by a military court on April 10 to three years in jail for “insulting the military.” On October 22, a civil court sentenced Ayman Mansour to three years in jail for allegedly insulting Islam on a Facebook page. On October 30, military prosecutors jailed blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattahon apparently politically motivated charges, that include inciting the October 9 Maspero demonstration of Coptic Christians.
The Ministry of Information, a Mubarak-era ministry that oversees and directs state-run television and radio, has been directly involved in restricting freedom of expression. On September 12 the ministry announced that it was halting the approval of new licenses for private satellite TV stations. During the October 9 violence, government -owned media called on “honorable citizens” to “defend the military against attack.”
In September authorities expanded the emergency law to include “intentionally spreading false information” as grounds for invoking emergency law provisions which limit basic rights. This expansion could allow for the detention without charge or trial of activists, election monitors or journalists who publish information the authorities consider to be “false,” including criticism of their management of the elections, Human Rights Watch said.
Civil Society Observers
On September 14, the Egyptian cabinet handed to prosecutors the results of the criminal investigationsof non-governmental organizations accused of receiving foreign funds. The offense is punishable with imprisonment under Egypt’s Associations Law. Restricting foreign funding can effectively deny civil society groups the ability to operate since under Mubarak, local sources shied away from funding human rights groups who criticized the powerful security services.
The High Elections Committee (HEC) has limited the right to apply for election observation permits to NGOs that are registered under Law 84. This requirement will exclude many independent NGOs who security agencies blocked from registering under that law. But the HEC has accepted observer permits for groups such as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement and the Egyptian Association for the Support of Democracy, and those groups have received most of the observation permits through the quasi-official National Council for Human Rights. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also approved several international organizations to observe the elections including Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute.
Failure to Uphold Rule of Law and Impunity for Abuse
The Emergency Law, in force for 31 years under Mubarak, gives the Interior Ministry extensive powers to suspend basic rights by prohibiting demonstrations, censoring newspapers, monitoring personal communications, and detaining people indefinitely without charge. In its 2010 report, “Elections in Egypt, State of Permanent Emergency Incompatible with Free and Fair Vote,”Human Rights Watch argued that the Emergency Law should be cancelled prior to elections and that it facilitates police impunity.
The SCAF on September 10 reaffirmed that the state of emergency, due to expire at the end of May 2012, was still in place and expanded its scope of application to include “attacks on freedom to work, the disruption of traffic and the intentional spreading of false information or rumours.”
The military has tried about 12,000 Egyptians in military tribunals that have imprisoned 11,000 – more than the total number of civilians who faced military trials during the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. All trials of civilians before military courts in Egypt violate the international right to a fair trial, where the proceedings do not protect basic due process rights and do not satisfy the requirements of independence and impartiality of courts of law. Defendants in Egyptian military courts usually do not have access to counsel of their own choosing and judges do not respect the rights of defense. Judges in the military justice system are military officers subject to a chain of command and therefore do not enjoy the independence to ignore instructions by superiors.
Torture, Abuse of Detainees
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of abuse and torture of detainees while in the hands of military and police since Mubarak resigned on February 11. No perpetrator of torture or physical abuse has been prosecuted so far this year, including in cases where victims of torture or forced “virginity tests” have filed complaints with the military prosecutor.
“It is a sad commentary on the military’s nine-month rule that it has built such a widespread array of human rights transgressions while holding almost no one to account,” said Stork.”