UPDATE:

On March 30, 2016, the two judges who worked on a draft anti-torture law, Hesham Raouf and Assem Abd al-Gabbar, were referred to a disciplinary hearing scheduled to begin on April 24, 2017, on accusations of “political involvement” and “engaging with an unlicensed organization.” They face severe disciplinary measures, which could include dismissal from their posts.

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should drop the charges brought against a human rights lawyer and the investigations against at least two judges over their role in proposing an anti-torture law in March 2015.

Negad al-Borai with judges Hesham Raouf  and Assem Abd el-Gabbar, who jointly drafted the anti-torture law proposal. 

© 2015 Private

On March 3, 2016, an investigative judge charged Negad al-Borai, head of a law firm that held workshops preparing the proposed law, with offenses that can carry up to 25 years in prison in relation to those activities. Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council, meanwhile, appears to have ordered an investigation into Hesham Raouf and Assem Abd al-Gabbar, judges who worked with al-Borai to draft the proposed law, for their role in the project, the law firm said.

“In today’s Egypt, not even members of the judiciary are safe and independent from the security-minded arms of the state,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “The authorities should be investigating those who torture, not those who are trying to improve Egypt’s laws and bring them in compliance with international norms.”

Authorities have interrogated al-Borai, the head of the 74-year-old United Group law firm, five times since April 2015, most recently on June 5. The interrogations focused on his role in the anti-torture draft law as well as other activities and funding of his law firm.

Judge Abd al-Shafy Othman, appointed by the justice minister to investigate al-Borai’s case, declined to provide al-Borai with an official copy of the charges against him. But al-Borai has said they include: establishing an unlicensed entity with the intent of inciting resistance to the authorities, implementing human rights activities without a license, receiving foreign funds without permission, and spreading false information for the purpose of harming public order.

During the June 5 session, Judge Othman presented al-Borai with a report from the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency that alleged he has been conducting human rights activities, receiving foreign funds, and promoting nonviolence culture with the purpose of bringing down the state, the United Group said in a June 6 statement. It said the National Security report’s evidence merely consisted of al-Borai’s articles in al-Shorouk, an independent newspaper, and Facebook posts about the crackdown on human rights groups in Egypt.

Having charged al-Borai, the authorities could arrest him at any time and hold him in pretrial detention, Human Rights Watch said. So far, the investigative judge has simply demanded that al-Borai guarantee his appearance for questioning by providing a certified address. The charge of illegally receiving foreign funding carries a potential 25-year sentence, under an amendment to the penal code decreed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in September 2014.

Judge Othman called Judge Raouf, the president of the Cairo Appeals Court and a former assistant justice minister, and Judge al-Gabbar, the vice president of the Cassation Court, the highest appellate court in the country, for interrogation on June 4. But the two judges have not yet been charged with any offense. Judge Raouf presented a memo to Judge Othman appealing the justice minister’s decision to open an investigation against him.

The draft anti-torture law was the culmination of work by al-Borai and his firm over several months, in collaboration with a group of judges and legal experts to bring Egyptian law in line with the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which Egypt ratified in 1986. In March 2015, al-Borai held a workshop to present the draft law and afterward sent it to the presidency, the Justice Ministry, and more recently the newly elected parliament.

In April 2015, according to reports in various government-owned and independent newspapers, the Supreme Judicial Council requested the appointment of an investigating judge to look into contributions to the draft law by judges Raouf and Abd al-Gabbar. The council asked for the investigation after receiving a report about the workshop and draft law from the National Security Agency, the newspapers said. The judges were not officially notified of the investigation and learned about it from the media, according to a joint statement by 19 Egyptian nongovernmental groups. Human Rights Watch was not able to contact the judges.

In the past two years, according to media reports, President al-Sisi has approved judicial authorities’ decisions to forcibly retire or fire dozens of judges, at least 47 in three different cases, for acts including expressing opinions against the government or the military’s July 2013 removal of former President Mohamed Morsy. On May 15, the Justice Ministry’s Judicial Inspection Administration opened an investigation into 12 judges and prosecutors for expressing political opinions about the decision by President al-Sisi to transfer two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia, al-Watan, a privately owned newspaper, reported.

Research by Human Rights Watch, journalists, and local human rights groups has repeatedly shown that torture is widespread in Egypt and that security services often enjoy impunity for their acts. Since Morsy’s removal, agents of the National Security Agency have used torture widely and routinely to force suspects to confess, Human Rights Watch has found. Egypt has failed to grant permission to the United Nations special rapporteur on torture to visit the country since the rapporteur at the time first made the request in 1996.

In the months leading up to the workshop, al-Borai and his firm interviewed 465 alleged victims of police torture and ill-treatment and filed 163 complaints to prosecutors, of which only seven reached the courts, according to a January 2015 report by the firm.

In recent months, investigating judges have increased their pressure on independent human rights groups, indicating that they could be close to filing charges in Case 173, a five-year-old investigation into the foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations. The judges have summoned human rights workers for questioning, banned them from travel, and attempted to freeze their personal funds and family assets.

On April 19, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was “closely following” the investigation and stressed “the need for human rights defenders and civil society in general, as well as the media, to work without undue restrictions.”

The investigations against al-Borai and the two judges violate several articles of the African Charter on Human and the Peoples’ Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of association, freedom of expression, and right to receive and disseminate information. The African Union’s Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance in Africa state that judges and lawyers “shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.”

The United Group law firm, a prominent firm in Egypt, represents a number of human rights groups and activists, including Human Rights Watch.

Egypt should abide by its March 2015 pledge at the conclusion of its Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations Human Rights Council to “respect the free exercise of the associations defending human rights” and to carry out legislative amendments to help combat the crime of torture, Human Rights Watch said.

“Egypt committed itself to amend its legislation to comply with UN treaties, but when lawyers and judges proposed such amendments, the authorities have sought to punish them,” Houry said. “This shows al-Sisi’s government has little regard for the suffering or rights of torture victims.”