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Egypt: Dismantle Tools of Repression

Reforming Laws That Curb Freedom, Shield Official Abuse Should Top Parliament’s Agenda

(New York) – Egypt’s newly elected parliament should urgently reform the arsenal of laws used by the Mubarak government to restrict freedoms, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today outlining priority areas for legislative and institutional reform. These laws were used to curb free expression and criticism of government, limit association and assembly, detain people indefinitely without charge, and shield an abusive police force from accountability.

The 46-page report, “The Road Ahead: A Human Rights Agenda for Egypt’s New Parliament,” sets out nine areas of Egyptian law that the newly elected parliament must urgently reform if the law is to become an instrument that protects Egyptians’ rights rather than represses them. Egypt’s existing laws – the penal code, associations law, assembly law, and emergency law – limit public freedoms necessary for a democratic transition, challenge respect for the rule of law, and impede accountability for abuses by the police and the military, Human Rights Watch said.

“Egypt’s stalled transition can be revived only if the new parliament dismantles Egypt’s repressive legal framework, the toolbox the government has relied on for decades to silence journalists, punish political opponents, and stifle civil society,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt’s new political parties need to live up to the promises of the Egyptian uprising by ensuring that no government can ever again trample on the rights of the Egyptian people.”

Egypt’s transitional political leaders have failed to reform these laws. The ruling military has relied on them to arrest protesters and journalists and to try over 12,000 civilians before military courts, adding to the heavy abusive legacy that Egypt’s future civilian rulers will have to address, Human Rights Watch said.

Egypt’s newly elected lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly, will sit for the first time on January 23, 2012, two days ahead of the first anniversary of the January 25 uprising that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

On February 13, 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued the first Constitutional Declaration stating that, “The SCAF will issue laws during the transitional period.” Since Mubarak’s ouster the SCAF has been the sole authority with the power to amend or approve amendments to existing laws, and issue or approve new ones. But with the elections for the country’s new parliament now complete, a new body also will be able to pass laws. It is unclear, however, what the power and mandate of the new parliament will be vis-à-vis the SCAF.

Over the past year, Egyptians have experienced many of the same human rights abuses that characterized Mubarak’s police state, Human Rights Watch said. Under SCAF leadership, excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings, torture, attacks on peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrests of bloggers and journalists have become commonplace and illustrate how little has changed, Human Rights Watch said. The SCAF has justified many of these abuses by noting that they are authorized under existing laws.

Military prosecutors have sentenced or summoned dozens of activists and journalists for “insulting the military” or “spreading false information.” Both charges violate international human rights law, which protects the right to insult under freedom of expression and limits penalties for peaceful speech to civil defamation. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the expert body that provides authoritative interpretations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party, states categorically in its recently-issued General Comment No. 34, on article 19 on Freedom of Expression, that, “States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”

By this standard, article 184 of the Egyptian penal code, which criminalizes “insulting the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council or any State Authority, or the Army or the Courts,” is incompatible with international law and Egypt’s new parliament should amend it, along with other provisions that restrict speech, accordingly, Human Rights Watch said.

“The military’s prosecution of journalists and protesters under the country’s existing laws is all the evidence one needs to know that changing leadership without changing laws will not ensure freedom,” Whitson said. “Egyptians need to know that it is the law that protects their rights, not new leaders who merely claim to share their values.”

The SCAF promised to lift the state of emergency, in effect continuously for the past 30 years. But on September 10 the SCAF expanded its scope of application beyond its use under Mubarak. The SCAF has been using the emergency law, and the state security prosecutor has so far referred at least five cases to the Emergency State Security Courts, which do not provide the right to an appeal. Both the Emergency Law and the Code of Military Justice allow for the trial of civilians before military courts, which violates the right to fair trial. Military courts have tried over 12,000 civilians in the past year.

The SCAF also has passed new laws under the state of emergency, such as Law 34 “On the Criminalization of Attacks on Freedom of Work and the Destruction of Facilities,” which criminalizes and imposes financial penalties for strikes and demonstrations that “obstruct public works.” The sweeping provisions of this law, together with the archaic 1914 and 1923 Public Assembly Laws, are inconsistent with the right to strike and freedom of assembly.

“Almost one year after tens of thousands of Egyptians rose up to demand their rights and dignity, it is staggering and shocking that not only has Egypt’s military failed to abolish the Emergency Law, it has passed new repressive laws,” Whitson said.

Most recently, Egyptian ministers for international cooperation and justice justified a police and militaryraid on 10 human rights and democracy organizations by citing the deeply flawed 2002 Association Law, which unduly restricts the formation and operation of independent associations. Despite the fact that the SCAF reformed the Political Parties law in March to allow for the establishment of new political parties and has allowed the establishment of over 100 new independent trade unions, there has been no movement to reform the Associations Law.

When Human Rights Watch met with then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and then-Minister of Justice Abdelaziz al-Guindy in June 2011, both agreed that the Associations Law needed to be amended. Instead, the transitional cabinet initiated a broad-based criminalinvestigation of nongovernmental organizations operating without registration under the Associations Law, violations of which are punishable with imprisonment and dissolution of the organization.

“The 2002 Associations Law was a Mubarak law designed to exclude and control independent groups and to give the government leeway to punish them when they become too critical.” Whitson said. “Rather than relying on this law to harass human rights organizations, the new parliament should revise the law to guarantee the independence of nongovernmental organizations.”

Egypt is party to a number of human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Egypt ratified in 1982, and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which it ratified two years later; yet the Egyptian authorities have so far failed to take these international obligations into account in drafting new laws or in striking down old laws.

In April, then-foreign minister Nabil al-Araby announced that Egypt would ratify the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court, and said that Egypt was “currently taking the required steps to join all United Nations agreements on human rights.” He said that Egypt was working hard to become a “legally-constituted state” and “wishes to follow the rule of law.” However, Egypt made no further moves toward ratifying these international treaties after al-Araby left his position in Egypt to become secretary-general of the League of Arab States.

Human Rights Watch calls upon the new parliament to make urgent human rights reforms a top priority by:

  • Lifting the state of emergency, repealing the Emergency Law, and revising the police law that allows Egyptian police wide latitude to shoot civilians including those who assemble in public and on the country’s borders;
  • Amending the Code of Military Justice to restrict its jurisdiction to military offenses perpetrated by military officers, and ending civilian trials before military courts;
  • Reforming the laws that restrict freedom of expression, association, and assembly, rights that are essential to creating the political space for Egyptian political parties, civil society, activist groups, and the media to receive and share information and views, including controversial and political ones; and
  • Amending the Penal Code’s definition of torture so that it accords with international law and covers all forms of physical and psychological abuse, and strengthening penalties for abuse by police officers so that the law will be an effective deterrent. 

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