(Beirut) – President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt has presided over the flagrant abuse of human rights since taking office a year ago pledging to restore stability. Violence by armed groups and the government has escalated.
The United States and European governments should stop overlooking Egyptian government abuses, including a lack of accountability for many killings of protesters by security forces, mass detentions, military trials of civilians, hundreds of death sentences, and the forced eviction of thousands of families in the Sinai Peninsula.
Over the past year, al-Sisi and his cabinet, governing by decree in the absence of an elected parliament, have provided near total impunity for security force abuses and issued a raft of laws that severely curtailed civil and political rights, effectively erasing the human rights gains of the 2011 uprising that ousted the longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
“The al-Sisi government is acting as though to restore stability Egypt needs a dose of repression the likes of which it hasn’t seen for decades, but its treatment is killing the patient,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “What makes it worse is that Western governments that subordinated human rights in their relations with Egypt during the Mubarak era seem ready to repeat their mistake.”
No member of the security forces has been held accountable for the mass killings of protesters that followed the military’s July 2013 removal of Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first freely elected president, which al-Sisi orchestrated as defense minister. These included the killing of at least 900 people in a single day, August 14, during security operations to clear protest sites in Cairo.
These killings amounted to probable crimes against humanity. But a government-commissioned fact-finding committee that investigated the events related to Morsy’s removal released only an executive summary of its findings in November 2014. The executive summary did not recommend any investigations into the mass killings, and Egypt’s prosecutor general has never announced an independent investigation.
Attacks by insurgent groups increased in the North Sinai governorate immediately following Morsy’s removal, but both insurgent attacks and government arrests and violence have escalated sharply since an October 2014 attack on a military base there, Human Rights Watch research has found. Attacks on police and government infrastructure have also become common in mainland Egypt. The government has responded by clearing a kilometer-wide buffer zone on the border with the Gaza Strip, trying thousands of civilians in military courts, and arresting those who dissent.
In its annual report, released in May 2015, the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) stated that the “right to life witnessed horrible deterioration” in 2013 and 2014. The report said that violence had resulted in about 2,600 deaths in that period, including 700 security personnel, 1,250 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – the organization to which Morsy belonged – and 550 other civilians.
Since al-Sisi came to power, the authorities have continued to aggressively enforce a de facto protest ban and routinely dispersed anti-government demonstrations with force. In January 2015, at least 20 people died during events surrounding the fourth anniversary of the 2011 uprising. Prosecutors charged a member of the Central Security Forces (CSF) for the January 24 killing of a leftist activist but also charged 17 people who witnessed her killing with violating the anti-protest law. In February, at least 19 soccer fans died in a stampede outside a Cairo stadium after police fired tear gas into a crowd of hundreds lined up to pass through an enclosed metal corridor. Prosecutors charged members of one of the team’s fan clubs and alleged Brotherhood members for the stampede, but no police officers.
A congressionally mandated US State Department report on Egypt’s political situation submitted in May 2015 found that “a series of executive initiatives, new laws, and judicial actions severely restrict freedom of expression and the press, freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and due process, and they undermine prospects for democratic governance.” Yet in March, President Barack Obama resumed supplying military equipment to Egypt and announced that most military aid would continue, albeit with policy changes, to be implemented later, that would eliminate Egypt’s ability to buy on credit and more strictly define the uses of such aid.
The European Union (EU) and its 28 member states have failed to find a collective, firm, and principled response to Egypt’s crackdown on dissent and the imprisonment of critical journalists, activists, and political opposition following blatantly unfair trials. While EU High Representative Federica Mogherini has expressed dismay about hundreds of death penalties and noted that a May 16 verdict preliminarily sentencing Morsy to death was “not in line with Egypt’s obligations under international law,” she failed to insist on the release of those who are wrongfully imprisoned.
The EU has repeatedly pledged to place human rights at the core of its relations with third countries and stand up for those who defend human rights and rule of law. However, when Mogherini attended a March economic conference in the Egyptian city of Sharm al-Sheikh, she said her visit was a signal of the EU’s “continuous support” to Egypt and she remained silent on gross government abuses, the closing space for civil society, and continued impunity for grave government abuses.
The US and EU should press al-Sisi and his advisers to roll back the numerous repressive laws passed in the past two years and release the many people unjustly detained for exercising their human rights, Human Rights Watch said.
“Continued silence from the United States and Europe legitimizes al-Sisi’s flawed logic that the state’s clampdown on its own citizens will yield stability,” Stork said. “It’s not too late to push the Egyptian government to correct its course.”
Mass Arrests and Detention and Abuses in Detention
The authorities detained, charged, or sentenced at least 41,000 people between July 2013 and May 2014, straining Egypt’s prisons and aggravating hugely overcrowded conditions in the police stations and security directorates where the Interior Ministry now holds detainees, many of them without trial. In its report, the NCHR stated that prisons were at 160 percent capacity, and police stations at 300 percent. The authorities have also used unofficial facilities, including military bases and security agency sites to house detainees. Torture and ill-treatment at these facilities are routine.
Judges have routinely approved lengthy periods of pretrial detention for accused Brotherhood members and activists who oppose the government, while allowing members of the security forces and others who support al-Sisi to be freed on bail. In one case, 494 people arrested at Cairo’s Al Fath Mosque in August 2013 during the fallout from Morsy’s removal and who are being tried together have been held in detention since their arrest.
In July 2014, the Interior Ministry said that 7,389 people arrested in connection with the unrest surrounding Morsy’s overthrow remained in pretrial detention. It has not released updated statistics. On June 6, 2015, the Interior Ministry announced that 200 detained high school students would take their final exams in prison.
Egyptian human rights organizations documented at least 124 deaths in custody since August 2013 as a result of medical negligence, torture, or ill-treatment. The Justice Ministry’s Forensic Medical Authority said in December 2014 that at least 90 people died that year in police stations in the Cairo and Giza governorates alone. At least three former Brotherhood parliament members have died in custody. In May 2015, the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture documented 23 deaths for which it said security forces were most likely responsible, including four from medical negligence, three from torture, and two after the victims went missing.
Prosecutors opened an investigation into one case, the death of lawyer Karim Hamdy. Two Egypt Homeland Security officers were arrested on February 25 in connection with the investigation, and a court released them on bail of 15,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,310) on March 28.
Rather than reassessing policies on pretrial detention in the face of allegations of ill-treatment in police custody or dropping charges against those unjustly detained, the Interior Minister has issued decrees officially designating some police stations as prisons.
Mass Trials, Military Trials of Civilians, and Death Sentences
The harsh crackdown and arrest campaign that began after the July 2013 coup has sent numerous secular activists to prison, including human rights defenders Yara Sallam and Mahienour al-Masry, April 6 Youth Movement co-founder Ahmed Maher, and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah. Other secular activists have been sentenced to long prison terms in mass trials. In February 2015, a judge sentenced activist Ahmed Douma, women’s rights defender Hend al-Nafea, and 228 others to life in prison for participating in a December 2011 protest.
Many members of the Muslim Brotherhood including its leaders have also been prosecuted under al-Sisi. Judges have handed down at least 547 death sentences and many more sentences of life imprisonment for political violence or activities, many after mass trials involving alleged Brotherhood supporters and other Islamists. In separate decisions on May 16, a criminal court recommended the death penalty for 122 people, including Morsy, the noted academic Emad Shahin, and half a dozen top Brotherhood officials. The court will rule on whether to finalize those death sentences on June 16. To date, only one of these death sentences has been approved by the Court of Cassation, a requirement before they can be carried out.
After a period of two and a half years after the 2011 uprising in which Egypt carried out no executions, the authorities have executed 27 people since al-Sisi took up office. Among them, seven had been convicted of murder in connection with political violence, six of them following unfair trials in a military court. The six men were executed despite credible evidence that at least three of them had been in detention at the time of the crimes for which they were accused.
In October 2014, al-Sisi issued a decree expanding military court jurisdiction to all “public and vital facilities” for two years. Since then, prosecutors have referred at least 2,280 civilians for military trial, according to a Human Rights Watch count based on media reports. In May, one of these military courts, in Alexandria, sentenced six children to 15 years in prison, according to the National Community for Human Rights and Law.
In October 2014, following an attack on an Egyptian army checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula by the insurgent group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, also known as Sinai Province, the Egyptian armed forces began evicting thousands of families from their homes along the border with the Gaza Strip. Al-Sisi claimed that armed groups in the Sinai had received weapons and fighters through tunnels from Gaza.
The removal of thousands of families from the border zone violated protections against forced evictions under international human rights law. The US State Department May 2015 report on Egypt to the US Congress stated that “government forces have committed arbitrary or otherwise unlawful killings during dispersal of demonstrators, of persons in custody, and during military operations in the northern Sinai Peninsula.”