(New York) –Egypt’s new government should break decisively from a pattern of serious abuses that has prevailed since the January 2011 uprising, and make a commitment to respect the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.Authorities should protect and promote the rights of all Egyptians, and halt arbitrary arrests of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of Egypt’s armed forces, in a televised address on the evening of July 3, 2013, said that the military had temporarily suspended the constitution. He said that the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, would be sworn in as interim president until presidential elections are held, and that a technocratic government would have full powers. In the transitional period, al-Sisi said, the interim president will have the authority to issue constitutional decrees.
“Egyptians suffered enormously under the generals and then under President Morsy’s government, which shoved human rights to the sidelines,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “One test of whether Egypt can return to a path of democratic development will rest on whether the Freedom and Justice Party can operate without political reprisals against its members.”
After Sisi’s announcement, the Interior Ministry issued a decree suspending three Islamist TV stations: the Muslim Brotherhood television station Misr 25, as well as al-Naas and al-Hafez TV. All three went off the air. Closing television stations or imposing similar arbitrary restrictions on media purely on the basis of their political or religious affiliation is a violation of the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
At 1 a.m. on July 4, 12 plainclothes security officials arrived at the family home to arrest Freedom and Justice Party leader Mohamed Katatny, according to a posting by Moaz Katatny on his father’s official Facebook page. Security officials confirmed that they had arrested Rashad Bayoumy, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, while the state newspaper Al Ahram reported that 300 other arrest warrants for Muslim Brotherhood members had been issued. A return to Mubarak-era practices of mass arrests and politically-motivated imprisonment of Muslim Brotherhood leaders will have the worst possible effect on Egypt’s political future, Human Rights Watch said.
Egypt’s new interim president and the military leadership should immediately end reprisals against Muslim Brotherhood political leaders, including arrests or travel bans, and should allow the Freedom and Justice Party to fully exercise freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.
The new government needs to make it clear immediately that it and all state bodies, including the armed forces, will respect all basic rights that apply within Egypt at all times.
All parties should seek to minimize violence in the coming days, Human Rights Watch said. Under international standards, lethal force can only be used lawfully by security forces carrying out policing where strictly necessary and proportionate to protect life. Security forces also have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the right to life and to security of all people in Egypt.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) controlled Egypt’s government from February 11, 2011, to June 30, 2012. On June 24, 2012, the Freedom and Justice Party leader Mohamed Morsy was declared winner of the presidential elections and took office on June 30.
Neither the SCAF nor the Morsy government meaningfully reformed Mubarak-era institutions or the repressive legal framework that severely limits the exercise of basic political rights, Human Rights Watch said. The successive governments failed to amend the penal code, which restricts freedom of expression. Parliament under the SCAF and under the Muslim Brotherhood debated various restrictive drafts of anti-demonstrations laws. Both governments failed to promote freedom of association for nongovernmental groups, including trade unions.
During the SCAF’s rule, military courts tried over 12,000 civilians, more than the total number of civilians tried by military courts during the 30-year-long Mubarak presidency, prosecuting bloggers and others on charges of “insulting the military.” The SCAF repeatedly used excessive force to break up demonstrations and, despite official recognition of the need to rebuild public confidence in the police, initiated no security sector reform. There was no comprehensive investigation into systematic acts of torture and ill-treatment practiced by Egyptian security forces under Mubarak or since.
Themilitary themselves failed to investigate incidents in which military police beat and kicked women on December 16, 2011.Video footage showed six officers kicking a veiled woman as she lay on the ground. Nor did they investigate military police torture of protesters in March 2011,at Lazoghli in downtown Cairo, or in May 2012,at Abbasiyya. Military prosecutors charged only one man in connection with the sexual assault of seven women protesters in March 2011 in a military prison under the guise of “virginity tests.” A military court acquitted him, although senior officers acknowledged that these sexual assaults took place.
In the October 2011 killing by soldiers of 27 protesters outside the Maspero state media headquarters in Cairo, three conscripts were the only ones convicted, on manslaughter charges. They were sentenced to two- to three-year prison terms for driving military vehicles into the protesters, killing thirteen. There was no investigation into the military’s use of live ammunition that night and the killing of the other 14 protesters, nor into any of the military personnel in command that day.
In his year of rule, Morsy failed to distance himself from Mubarak-era practices or to reform restrictive Mubarak-era laws. The president showed apparent initial interest in accountability and reviewing arbitrary detention practices, but then failed to halt or deter police abuses. The space for freedom of expression diminished with increasing criminal defamation and blasphemy prosecutions. And the president’s party has proposed repressive laws on assembly and association. Sectarian violence was rarely prosecuted, police torture remained endemic, and civilians faced trials before military courts.
“The government needs to address Egypt’s new reality, one where millions of people have taken to the streets to demand an end to authoritarianism in whatever guise,” Stork said. “Political stability in Egypt depends on protecting and promoting political space for Egyptians to peacefully mobilize for social justice and reform on the basis of a free exchange of information.”
A Review of President Morsy’s Human Rights Record
Freedom of Expression
During Morsy’s first year in office, numerous journalists, political activists, and others were prosecuted on charges of “insulting” officials or institutions and “spreading false information,” using Mubarak-era penal code provisions that criminalize dissent. Most of these cases resulted in suspended sentences or fines, though none served prison terms, but the criminal prosecutions have had an immediate chilling effect on journalists, especially less prominent ones, Human Rights Watch said.
In August 2012, the press law was amended to abolish pretrial detention of journalists, signaling Morsy’s awareness that locking up journalists purely for exercising their freedom of expression is a problem. But his administration left in place numerous penal code provisions that could result in prison terms for defamation.
The president made no move to instruct his party, which dominates the legislature, to abolish penal code provisions that stipulate heavy criminal penalties for alleged “insults” to officials and “false information.” The president’s office itself filed nine criminal complaints against journalists for “insulting the president,” which they withdrew after public criticism. An investigative judge appointed by the justice minister has questioned over 20 journalists and at least five politicians, including Muslim Brotherhood members, on criminal charges of “insulting the judiciary” after they publicly criticized the judiciary’s lack of independence.
Freedom of Religion
The continuing lack of protection of freedom of religion was reflected in recurrent bouts of sectarian violence, including the June 23 lynching of four Shia. President Morsy failed to make it a priority to create a strategy to protect religious minorities and has failed to speak out against months of hate speech against Shia.
At least five serious incidents of Muslim-Christian violence took place during Morsy’s rule. Prosecutors investigated only one case, in Dahshour, south of Cairo, in July 2012, but the investigation did not result in any prosecutions. Authorities have taken no steps to investigate serious incidents of sectarian violence under the preceding military government, or during Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Egyptian law discriminates against Christians by prohibiting the construction of churches without a presidential decree, which is not required of other religious groups for their places of worship. Egypt’s new constitution explicitly confirms the right to religious practice and places of worship for Muslims, Christians, and Jews but not for those of other faiths, such as Baha’i’s.
There was also an increase in blasphemy prosecutions. Mohamed Asfour is serving one year in prison, sentenced in July 2012, on charges of defaming religion because of his Shia beliefs. In September, a court in Assiut sentenced Bishoy Kamel to six years in prison for “insulting Islam.”
Military Trials of Civilians
In his speech four days before the June 30 protests, Morsy said that, “All civilians sentenced by military courts have been released, they were all pardoned.” In fact, civilians sentenced by military courts remain in prison, military trials of civilians have continued with new referrals under Morsy, and, in a long term setback, the constitution promulgated under Morsy affirmed the rights of the military justice system to try civilians.
In July 2012, Morsy set up a committee to review the cases of civilians sentenced by military courts since the start of the uprising. In August 2012, the committee recommended the release of 700 of them by presidential pardon but did not press for the retrial of 1,100 others, citing “security” grounds. Among those who remain in prison serving sentences issued by military courts is Mohamed Ehab, arrested on March 9, 2011, when he was 17. Although he was a child at the time of his arrest, he received no additional protections and a military court sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
In November 2012, a military court tried 25 civilian residents of the island of Qursaya in Cairo, and ultimately gave them suspended sentences. A freelance journalist, Mohamed Sabry, is on trial before a military court on charges of trespassing and filming in a prohibited place without authorization. Military officers arrested Sabry on January 4, 2013, as he filmed a report for Reuters about land ownership and regulations near the Rafah border crossing in North Sinai.
In an apparent threat to try people before military tribunals, Morsy said, in his speech on June 26, that the code of military justice would apply to anyone who insults the president, who is also the head of the armed forces. The president’s statement ignored the international standard that no civilian, regardless of the crime, should be tried before a military tribunal, Human Rights Watch said.
Emergency Law Courts
Egypt’s 30-year-plus state of emergency ended in May 2012, but Emergency State Security Courts continue to operate under article 19 of the emergency law, which is still on the books. Morsy failed to transfer the remaining trials before these courts to civilian courts, and in September, appointed 3,649 judges to these courts.
On January 20, 2013, an Emergency State Security Court began retrying 12 Christians and 8 Muslims accused of participating in sectarian clashes in Abu Qurqas in April 2011. Two people died in those clashes, many on both sides were injured, and scores of Christian-owned shops and homes were torched. A first trial in this case before an Emergency State Security court in Minya resulted in life sentences for the 12 Christians and the acquittal of the Muslim defendants.
Police Abuse and Impunity
There has been no reform of the security system, and the presidency under Morsy put forth no plans to address the ongoing systematic torture in detention, Human Rights Watch said. In his speech this week, President Morsy made only a vague commitment to “change the police force to make them more neutral, to serve the people.”
The only way to bring about a change in police practices is through ensuring accountability for abuses, and reforming the legal and institutional structures that allow the security forces to continue their abusive practices, Human Rights Watch said. President Morsy refused to make public the report presented to him in early January by the fact-finding commission he set up to look into the killings of peaceful protesters between January 25, 2011, and June 30, 2012.
Two years after the January 2011 uprising in Egypt, those responsible for killing at least 846 protesters and for subsequent police and military abuses, including the excessive use of force against protesters, are almost all at liberty. Only four of the 36 trials of middle ranking and low level police officers accused of killing protesters near police stations during that period have resulted in prison sentences. Other convictions have been suspended or imposed in absentia. Only two police officers have served prison time.
As a result of ineffective or nonexistent investigations, security agency obstruction, and laws that give overly broad discretion to the police in using live gunfire, police are still using excessive and unnecessary force in policing, Human Rights Watch said. In January, the police response to an attack on a prison in Port Said resulted in three days of violence that left 48 people dead.Instead of speaking out against the excessive use of force by the police in a speech on January 28, the president declared a one month state of emergency in three cities, granting the police even greater margin for abuse.
Morsy’s response to violent clashes between opposition critics, and his supporters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, outside the presidential palace in December was also disturbingly one-sided, Human Rights Watch said. He failed to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence suggesting his political allies and supporters participated in the violence and claimed that people detained had confessed their guilt, at a time when prosecutors were still questioning them. The prosecutors subsequently released them for lack of evidence.
Freedom of Assembly and Association
President Morsy’s Freedom and Justice Party dominates Egypt’s legislative body, the Shura Council. For months, the Shura Council has debated a demonstrations law that would give the police broad authority to use violent methods to disperse demonstrations.
Freedom of association is also still curtailed by the notorious Associations Law of 2002. New draft association laws prepared by the Shura Council and the presidency fall short of international standards, Human Rights Watch said. The presidency made public a draft on May 29, that would reinforce and formalize state control over nongovernmental groups by empowering the government to deny them access to both domestic and international funding. It would also give the authorities complete discretion to put a stop to activities of Egyptian and international organizations, including human rights groups, that document or criticize rights abuses by the government.
Under the trade unions law still in place, hundreds of newly formed independent trade unions operate precariously, with their members liable to prosecution for engaging in union activities such as strikes.