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(New York) – Egypt’s new law on public assembly will restrict peaceful political demonstrations in violation of international standards. The law was issued by the interim president, Adly Mansour, on November 24, 2013. It effectively grants security officials discretion to ban any protest on very vague grounds, allows police officers to forcibly disperse any protest if even a single protester throws a stone, and sets heavy prison sentences for vague offenses such as attempting to “influence the course of justice.”

The law also gives the Interior Ministry the right to ban any meeting “of a public nature” of more than 10 people in a public place, including meetings related to electoral campaigning. The law includes no exceptions for smaller demonstrations that would not cause disruption, or for urgent and spontaneous demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said.

“This new Egyptian government’s first major legislative act clearly shows that its goal is to sharply restrict peaceful assembly and to let security shut down protests at will,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. ”This law will reverse the freedom to demonstrate that Egyptians seized in January 2011, and risks putting that freedom, which brought about momentous change, into reverse.”

Adly issued Law 107 of 2013 on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions and Peaceful Demonstrations based on his legislative powers under the July 8 Constitutional Declaration. The cabinet initially approved a draft on October 10 but after a public outcry agreed to some amendments. Human Rights Watch had urged the government to amend the law to bring it in line with Egypt’s obligation to respect freedom of assembly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The final version includes some limited improvements but retains the overall repressive character of the initial version.

The new law requires organizers of demonstrations, processions, and public meetings of more than 10 people that take place in a public place without prior individual invitation to notify the Interior Ministry three days in advance. Article 10 grants Interior Ministry officials an absolute right to ban any protest or public meeting on the vague basis of “serious information or evidence that there will be a threat to peace and security,” without any requirement to provide specific justification. Organizers can in theory appeal a ban before the local court of first instance, but the law sets no time frame, meaning that the court could hear the appeal after the scheduled date of the event.

Article 2 stipulates that the law also applies to public meetings during the official campaign period for elections, or any meetings of voters and the candidates or their representatives and meetings to select a candidate.

“Over the next nine months, Egypt will hold a referendum on the constitution, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections,” Stork said. “The excessive notification requirements on election-related meetings will have a further chilling effect on freedom to campaign and on the pre-electoral environment.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated in his May 2012 report that, “A notification should be subject to a proportionality assessment, not unduly bureaucratic and be required a maximum of, for example, 48 hours prior to the day the assembly is planned to take place.” He also said that, “Prior notification should ideally be required only for large meetings or meetings which may disrupt road traffic.” It is difficult to see the proportionality of a notification requirement for a meeting of 11 or 12 people given, for example, that the authorities would not need to regulate traffic as they would with large demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said. The Interior Ministry’s right to ban or disperse election-related meetings is particularly problematic.

The law also includes a number of other vague provisions that undermine the right to peaceful assembly, going well beyond the limitations permitted under international law, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 19 sets a prison sentence of between two and five years and a fine of 50,000-100,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$7,200-14,500) for any violation of article 7, which states that: 

Participants in public assemblies or processions or demonstrations are prohibited from violating security or public order or impeding production or calling for this, or impeding the interests of citizens, or harming them or exposing them to danger or affecting their ability to perform their rights and their work, or influencing the course of justice, or public facilities, or blocking roads or public transportation, or ground, sea, or air transportation, or blocking traffic, or assaulting individuals or public or private property or endangering them.

Terms such as “influencing the course of justice” or “impeding the interests of citizens” or “blocking traffic” are particularly vague and would allow the authorities to criminalize a range of legitimate peaceful public meetings and demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 6 also prohibits wearing face masks for the purpose of committing a crime. Violations of this provision are punishable by a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of 3,000-5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$435-726), according to article 20. The same penalty applies to violations of article 5, which bans public assembly “for political reasons” in or adjacent to places of worship, as well as processions leading to and from such places or demonstrations in them.

Earlier drafts of the law included an outright ban on any demonstrations within 100 to 300 meters of any official executive, legislative, or judicial building in the country. Article 14 now leaves it to the Interior Ministry and the local governor to determine “a specific radius” around these buildings, which protesters are banned from entering. Infringements carry penalties of up to a year in prison and a fine of 50,000-100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$7,200-14,500), as set out in article 20.

The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association said in his May 2012 report on assembly worldwide that authorities must facilitate demonstrations within “sight and sound” of the demonstration’s object and target audience, and warned against limiting the venue for a demonstration to the outskirts of the city or an out-of-the-way square, where its impact would be muted.

The law opens the door to an increase in the use of force on the part of the police because it allows for a forcible dispersal of an entire demonstration or meeting if one protester commits a crime such as assaulting a police officer. Article 11 states that the police may forcibly disperse a demonstration or public meeting if “any criminal act emanates from the participants, or if the assembly diverges from peaceful expression,” and that the decision will be made at the level of the chief police officer on the ground. This would in effect amount to collective punishment of protesters because police could deal with the individual allegedly involved in criminal activity by arresting that person, Human Rights Watch said.

The new draft includes a few small improvements in article 12 that limit the way in which police could progressively use force to disperse protests. Article 13 also states that the use of teargas and rubber pellets should be “proportionate to the threat” but the provision goes on to say that the police can use lethal force in “legitimate self-defense,” which under Egyptian law is broadly defined to grant police discretion to include circumstances other than those strictly necessary to protect life.

Prior to this new law, public assembly in Egypt was governed by the Illegal Assembly Law of 1914, Law 10 of 1914, and Public Assembly Act No. 14 of 1923, which police under former President Hosni Mubarak used to ban public protests.

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