(New York) – At least seven peaceful activists from the Strong Egypt party face criminal charges, apparently for hanging posters calling for a “no” vote in the forthcoming constitutional referendum. During interrogations with prosecutors and police, questions fixated on the posters and the men’s political views. The constitutional referendum will be held on January 14 and 15, 2014.
Police arrested the activists in three separate incidents after finding them in possession of posters calling for a “no” vote in the week preceding the referendum. Prosecutors charged the first group of three, arrested on January 7, under a section of the penal code that criminalizes “propogat[ing]… the call for changing the basic principles of the constitution…when the use of force or terrorism, or any other illegal method, is noted during the act.” A fourth party member detained on January 10 faces charges related to alleged involvement in terrorism. Three others, apprehended on January 12 for “distributing fliers, attempting to overthrow the regime, provoking citizens to reject the constitution, and engaging in incitement against the police and army,” will be brought in front of prosecutors on January 13 to face specific charges.
“Egyptian citizens should be free to vote for or against the new constitution, not fear arrest for simply campaigning for a ‘no’ vote,” said Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa deputy director. “Protecting the right to vote requires safeguarding the right to free expression.”
The referendum comes in the midst of widening repression against political dissent in which arbitrary arrests solely for the exercise of peaceful expression and assembly have increased. While streets are awash with billboards and signs calling for a “yes” vote, “no” posters have been virtually absent from the public square.
On January 7, police arrested three volunteers from the Strong Egypt party, a centrist party founded by Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, who left the Muslim Brotherhood due to ideological differences in 2011. The three – 30-year-old accountant Ihab Abd al-Karim, the party’s secretary for public outreach in Giza; 21-year-old Islam al-Akabawy, a law student at Cairo University; and 22-year-old Ali Mohamed Ali, a law student at al-Azhar University – were arrested around 10 p.m., minutes after they had finished hanging several dozen “No to the Constitution” posters in the Garden City neighborhood of downtown Cairo, Abd al-Karim and a witness told Human Rights Watch.
Police approached the men from behind as they walked together on the Corniche al-Nil, a road along the Nile River, still holding a handful of posters, on their way to catch public minibuses home. After asking a few questions about the signs, the police arrested the men and transported them to the nearby Qasr al-Nil police station.
Police detained a fourth party activist, 35-year-old Mahmoud Emam, who runs a make-up and perfume store, in the early hours of January 10. He told Human Rights Watch that police pulled him off a minibus at a police checkpoint near the Ahmed Sa’ed Bridge in the Abbassiya district of eastern Cairo and discovered posters and fliers calling for a “no” vote inside a newspaper he was carrying. Emam had been on his way home after a night in which he had put up “no” signs in the Dokki neighborhood of western Cairo and had stopped at the Qasr al-Nil station to check on Abd al-Karim, al-Akabawy, and Ali.
The police arrested three other party members, Sami Ashraf, Mohamed Abu Leila, and Ahmed Badawi, as they finished hanging posters in Hadayek al-Qobba, a district in eastern Cairo, at around 7 p.m. on January 12, according to Abd al-Rahman Yusif, a Strong Egypt party lawyer who spoke to the men at the Hadayek al-Qobba police station where they were held later that night.
The posters read “No to the Constitution” and “2013 = 2012” in Arabic at the top, and include the name of the Strong Egypt party in both Arabic and English at the bottom. Different variations of the middle section contain one of five slogans in Arabic: “No to Military Trials for Civilians,” “No to the Army’s Loss of Prestige and Politicization,” “No to the Denial of Oversight Over the Corruption of Institutions,” “No to the Loss of the Rights of the Downtrodden to the Account of Businessmen,” and “No to the Continuation of the Interior Ministry’s Thuggery.”
Upon seeing this last sign, officers at the checkpoint who arrested Emam punched him repeatedly, exclaiming: “We will show you the thuggery of the Interior Ministry,” Emam told Human Rights Watch. Abd al-Karim and Emam both said that when police took their pictures at the respective stations they were being held at, they forced them to hold signs that read “Posters in Opposition to the Regime.”
Prosecutors interrogated Abd al-Karim, al-Akabawy, and Ali on January 8. According to Mohamed Atef and Yasmin al-Sheikh, lawyers present for the interrogations of each of the three men, prosecutors questioned the activists about where they got the posters, who funded the effort, and why they were putting them up. Having confiscated the men’s phones, they also asked about video footage of protests found on them. In none of the interrogations did prosecutors ask about or accuse the activists of using force or coercion of any kind.
Prosecutors charged the three men under article 98(b) of the penal code. The section prescribes penalties of not more than five years imprisonment and fines of no less than 50,000 Egyptian pounds (USD$7180) to:
Whoever propagates in the Republic of Egypt, by any means, the call for changing the basic principles of the constitution or the basic system of the social body, or condemning a social class with regards to other classes or eliminating social classes or to overthrow the basic state economic or social system, or destroying any core institution to the social body when the use of force or terrorism, or any other illegal method, is noted during the act.
Prosecutors initially questioned Emam on January 10 without a lawyer present, he told Human Rights Watch. Police focused on the posters calling for a “no” vote and on Emam’s political views, asking why he opposed the constitution and whether party head Abu al-Fotouh would run for president. On January 11, prosecutors again interrogated Emam, but this time in the presence of lawyers. Strong Egypt party lawyer Yusif, present for the interrogation, told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors decided to charge Emam under article 86 of the penal code, which proscribes penalties for involvement in acts of terrorism. The only evidence produced by the prosecutor were the posters and Emam’s involvement in the Strong Egypt party, Yusif said.
Prosecutors ordered al-Karim, al-Akabawy, Ali, and Emam released from custody pending charges. Al-Akabawy and Ali left the Qasr al-Nil police station in the early hours of January 10, while Abd al-Karim was released around 5 p.m. that day. The men told Human Rights Watch they spent their nights in custody in overcrowded detention cells in the basement of the police station, where they were crammed so tightly along with several dozen criminal detainees that they had no room to sit. Police released Emam from the al-Dhaher police station at around 10:30 p.m. on January 11, after two nights in tiny three-by-three meter underground cells with 20 criminal detainees, all of whom had been there over a month, Emam said.
Emam and Abd al-Karim told Human Rights Watch that before agreeing to release the four men, police turned them over to an officer with National Security for questioning. Abd al-Karim said that the officer from National Security told him he “should be thankful for your good luck. If the situation [in Egypt] had not calmed down, we would have renewed your detention for 15 days after 15 days and kept you in prison, where the conditions are like nothing you have seen. You have been spoiled.”
Hours before his release, police officers approached Emam in his detention cell and asked him to take off his undershirt and tear it up in front of the other detainees, Emam told Human Rights Watch. Then two police officers blindfolded him and whisked him out of the cell. Blindfolded and firmly held between the two officers, they forced him to run up two flights of stairs as they hit him repeatedly. At the top of the staircase, an unidentified officer interrogated Emam about his political views, asking him how he voted in previous elections, what parts of the constitution he opposed, and what he thought would happen in Egypt if the constitution did not pass.
At the time of writing, police had yet to release Ashraf, Abu Leila, and Badawi.
Police on January 11 arrested an eighth Strong Egypt party activist, 20 year-old engineering student Mohamed Baghat, in Khosous, a city in the Qaloybia Governorate north of Cairo, according to a Strong Egypt party member in the city who spoke with Baghat and requested anonymity. This person told Human Rights Watch that police detained and repeatedly struck Baghat after witnessing him spray-paint “No to the Constitution” on the wall of a public school, where a “Yes to the Constitution” conference was being held. Baghat was released without charge on January 12 after a night in a detention cell at the Khosous police station and interrogation by National Security officers.
Police held another party member for several hours at the Khosous police station as he attempted to secure Baghat’s release, according to the party member who spoke with the man and Human Rights Watch and requested that the man’s name not be mentioned. While in detention, the party member said, police violently beat the man, including by hitting him in the head with the barrel of a rifle.
The arrests of the Strong Egypt activists fit an increasingly prevalent practice of police detaining political activists solely on the basis of peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch said. With specific regards to the campaign around the referendum, the ONA news agency reported on December 9, 2013, that police had arrested seven activists from al-Azhar University carrying banners calling for “No to the Constitution” and “No to the Protest Law.” According to the state-run al-Ahramnewspaper, police in Aswan in Upper Egypt arrested nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood on January 5, 2014, for distributing flyers calling for a boycott of the referendum.
In a January 10 news conference, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim declared “every Friday no less than 500 to 600 get arrested… at the beginning, we used to wait for the demonstration to turn violent, but now we confront them once they congregate. When we confront them, there are some that run, but, whoever we can grab, we detain.” Over the past three Fridays police have arrested 703 protesters and killed 27, according to the Interior and Health Ministries. Ibrahim also warned that “any attempt to disrupt the referendum or to prevent citizens from voting will be confronted by a level of force and severity that has not been seen before.”
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, Egypt is required to protect freedom of expression. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body of experts that reviews states’ compliance with the ICCPR, has written that the freedom of expression is “essential” to the full enjoyment of the right to participate in public affairs and vote.
Article 65 of Egypt’s draft constitution states that “[a]ll individuals have the right to express their opinion through speech, writing, imagery, or any other means of expression and publication.”
“The assessment of whether a vote is free and fair has to involve a comprehensive evaluation of the political climate,” Stork said. “Prosecutors should immediately drop the charges against the Strong Egypt activists and ensure that citizens can peacefully protest during the referendum.”