(Geneva) – Egypt’s allies should use the country’s November 5, 2014 review at the UN Human Rights Council to condemn the most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt’s modern history under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The United States and other allies should in particular condemn imminent threats to shut down the country’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations.
Member states should also use the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Egypt’s human rights situation to press Egypt to revoke a law that effectively bans peaceful protests and to release thousands of people detained solely for political expression.
“Washington, London, Paris, and other capitals have failed to confront Egypt’s dramatic reversal of human rights,” said Philippe Dam, acting Geneva office director at Human Rights Watch. “They should make clear that silencing independent groups will hurt Egypt’s relations with its allies.”
The government has set a November 10 deadline for all nongovernmental organizations to register under a highly restrictive 2002 law, or face criminal charges. In the absence of an elected parliament, al-Sisi amended the penal code by decree on September 21, 2014, raising the penalty for receiving foreign funding with the intent to “harm the national interest” to life in prison and a US$70,000 fine, or a possible death sentence if the recipient is a public servant. Egyptian rights activists – whom even the authoritarian government of former President Hosni Mubarak allowed to operate – fear that authorities will use this vaguely worded provision to prosecute them and close their organizations, most of which receive some funding from abroad.
The threat of criminal prosecution has led a number of high-profile Egyptian human rights defenders to leave the country. Some told Human Rights Watch that sources close to Egyptian intelligence services and the general prosecutor told them that authorities have prepared warrants for their arrest. Many said they have received phone calls warning them to register under the 2002 law. Others have been threatened with physical violence.
On October 8, 2014, hours after returning from an advocacy meeting in Europe, one person who works for an international human rights organization in Cairo found a written note on his windshield stating, “You will die today.” This person told Human Rights Watch that he complained to the police, who took no action. After he left the country on another trip, he said, an officer from Egypt’s National Security agency called and said he wanted to speak with him upon his return.
“What we see now is an unprecedented crackdown to contain the human rights movement in Egypt, liquidate the human rights movement, and put them under direct control of the state,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Any human rights defender who will stay and challenge the regime and still uncover abuses in the country will be put under threat.”
The Human Rights Council has missed multiple opportunities to send a strong and collective message protesting Egypt’s gross human rights violations. The reluctance on the part of many Western and other delegations has sent a signal that human rights are not a priority, indulging the al-Sisi administration’s wish to return to business as usual, Human Right Watch said.
Under the UPR process, each UN member state undergoes an assessment of its human rights record every four years. The Human Rights Council last reviewed Egypt in 2010 and is scheduled to adopt its new report on Egypt on November 7, 2014.
This review is the first since Egypt’s 2011 uprising and comes at a critical time for the protection of basic freedoms, which have eroded over the past three years, Human Rights Watch said. Since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, in July 2013 – led by al-Sisi, the former defense minister – Egyptian authorities have greatly restricted nearly all space for dissent. The authorities have arrested thousands of people solely for being members of Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood, as well as secular and leftist activists. The government has so far failed to hold anyone accountable for the security forces’ killing of thousands of pro-Morsy protesters in July and August 2013.
Egyptian authorities have, by their own estimate, imprisoned at least 22,000 people since the July 2013 coup. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, which has documented arrests by name and date, has put that number at 41,000.
Police arrested many simply for alleged membership in or sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best-organized opposition movement in the country. The Brotherhood has told Human Rights Watch that it estimates authorities have arrested about 29,000 people for suspected Brotherhood ties.
Police have arrested hundreds of other people for violating a November 2013 law that criminalizes gatherings of 10 or more people that authorities have not approved in advance, and allows the Interior Ministry to ban demonstrations at will and forcefully disperse those which aren’t authorized.
On October 26, 2014, a Cairo court sentenced 23 people to three years in prison for a peaceful demonstration on June 21 that challenged the law. Among those sentenced was Yara Sallam, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent human rights organization.
In the country’s highly polarized atmosphere, with the government characterizing any dissent as a threat to national security, Egypt’s judiciary and prosecutors have often failed to uphold standards of due process. Judges regularly approve repeated pretrial detention orders filed by prosecutors with little if any evidence. Prosecutors have referred cases involving civilians on multiple occasions to military courts.
The government has not held security forces accountable for the killings of more than 1,000 protesters opposed to Morsy’s removal in July or August 2013, the worst mass killings in the country’s modern history. The official June 30 Fact-Finding Committee – named after the 2013 date on which large protests mobilized against Morsy – will release its findings in two installments, on November 5 and November 15, 2014, the official Middle East News Agency reported.
The committee did not have the authority to subpoena testimony or evidence from the government.
“How many more human rights defenders need to leave the country or be silenced before the Human Rights Council tells Egypt to stop this crackdown?” Dam said. “Countries that say they are committed to human rights need to hold Egypt to account and keep an even closer watch after the UPR is over.”