(New York) – The Egyptian authorities should release a doctor who advocated better detention conditions and two roommates arrested with him. Their arrest and detention appear to be solely related to the doctor’s research and past political activism.
Police raided Dr. Taher Mokhtar’s apartment on January 14, 2016, and seized electronic devices and papers containing “allegations against the current government” and “provocative, inciteful slogans against the state,” according to investigation notes seen by Human Rights Watch. A lawyer for Mokhtar and the other two men, Ahmad Hassan and Hossam al-Din Hamad, said police seized reports that Mokhtar had made about detention conditions.
“The Egyptian authorities seem to view all criticism as dangerous criminal insubordination,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Instead of arresting people like Dr. Mokhtar, Egyptian authorities should be working to improve conditions for prisoners.”
All three have since been held in temporary detention pending their investigation on allegations of planning violent protests to overthrow the government and “intimidate and terrorize citizens.”
The allegations appear to stem from Mokhtar’s political activism – including organizing doctors’ strikes and protesting for police accountability – and his work documenting medical neglect in Egypt’s detention facilities. Based on the investigation notes, the police appeared to have seized no evidence from the apartment aside from the materials that allegedly contained anti-government writing. Given that they appear to be relying on his written criticism of the government rather than any evidence of planning violence, prosecutors should drop the charges and free Mokhtar, Hassan, and Hamad, Human Rights Watch said.
The raid occurred during a widespread security sweep of downtown Cairo ahead of the fifth anniversary of Egypt’s January 25, 2011 uprising. During the sweep, police conducted mass searches of apartments, media reports said.
One official at the Interior Ministry’s National Security branch told Reuters at the time: “We have taken several measures to ensure activists don't have breathing space and are unable to gather, and several cafes and other meeting places have been closed, while some have been arrested in order to scare the rest.”
National Security agents received information from “trusted confidential sources” that Mokhtar’s apartment served as a headquarters for a group of “agents provocateur” who were planning violent demonstrations to bring down the government, said the investigation notes prepared by Captain Ahmed Taha Zahed, a National Security agent. Captain Zahed wrote that he had obtained permission for the raid from the Supreme State Security Prosecution.
Mokhtar, a member of the Rights and Freedoms Committee of the Doctors Syndicate, had previously helped organize doctors’ strikes for better working conditions and had protested to seek accountability for police officers who beat to death Khaled Said, an Alexandria resident, in 2010, an incident that helped spark Egypt’s 2011 uprising.
The committee had asked Mokhtar to investigate prisoners’ health conditions in detention facilities. Among the reports found in his apartment were those published by a campaign called “Medical Neglect in Places of Detention is a Crime,” to which Mokhtar has contributed. Hassan, one of the roommates, is a fourth-year law student at Beni Suef University, and Hamad, the other, is a mechanical engineering student at October 6th University.
An ongoing campaign of mass arrests by the authorities since the 2013 removal of Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first freely elected president, has pushed Egypt’s prisons to 160 percent of their capacity and lockups in police stations to 300 percent of their capacity, according to a May 2015 annual report by the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights. That surge in detentions created unsafe, overcrowded conditions and was followed by a rise in deaths in custody.
One of the defense lawyers for the men told Human Rights Watch that the police had not presented a search warrant during the raid on Dr. Mokhtar’s apartment and only provided one later to the defense lawyers. They said that they believed the police had backdated the warrant, but could not prove it.
A defense lawyer said that the police took the three men to Cairo’s Abdeen Police Station for interrogation without informing them of the charges against them. He told Human Rights Watch that police kept the lawyers in a front room of the police station and prevented them from being present at the start of the interrogation.
On January 17, 2016, the Abdeen Minor Offenses Court ordered Mokhtar and the others detained for 15 days pending investigation and renewed their 15-day detention orders again on January 31 and February 14. On March 2, the court ordered their detention renewed for 45 days, and on March 23, it rejected an appeal by Mokhtar’s lawyers seeking his release.
On April 16, the court again renewed the three men’s 45-day temporary detention order. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to refer the three men to court, but in the years since Morsy’s ouster, the authorities have held thousands of people long periods of pretrial detention, sometimes exceeding the two-year limit on pretrial detention mandated by law.
The three are being held in Cairo’s Tora Prison. Friends of Hassan told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have placed Mokhtar in a cell with other men, while Hassan and Hamad remain together with other detainees. When Mokhtar asked why he was not in the same cell as Hassan and Hamad, guards beat him, a friend said. Mokhtar’s defense lawyer confirmed that guards had beaten Mokhtar.
The arrests appeared to have violated article 139 of Egypt’s criminal procedure code, which states that “any person arrested or placed in temporary detention shall immediately be informed of the reasons thereof.”
Article 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Egypt is a party, prohibits arbitrary detention. The charter also states that “every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions.”
Article 9 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is also party, states that “anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him.”
“Doctors and activists seeking to secure basic rights are not a threat to Egypt’s national security,” Houry said. “The authorities should release anyone being held for exercising their rights, especially people like Dr. Mokhtar and his roommates, who risk spending months or years in pretrial detention.”