(Tunis) – Egyptian prosecutors should drop a case against the country’s former chief corruption auditor that violates the right to free speech and harms efforts to combat corruption.
A Cairo court for minor offenses convicted Hisham Geneina of disseminating false information and gave him a suspended one-year sentence on July 28, 2016. Geneina is appealing the verdict but had to pay a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,252) and 10,000 (US$1,126) for bail. Geneina’s defense said that the charges against him were based on a misquoted statement to the media about the cost of corruption.
“The abuse of free speech in Egypt has heightened to the point of turning a misunderstanding into criminal charges punishable by prison,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “This escalation can have a dangerous chilling effect, especially on officials responsible for reporting corruption.”
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi set a precedent by removing Geneina as head of the Central Auditing Organization, a key financial watchdog, in March, after Geneina made several statements to the media asserting that state institutions and prosecutors were ignoring or stymying action on his reports of corruption. Geneina was the only remaining senior official from the administration of President Mohamed Morsy, who was removed in a July 2013 coup led by then-Defense Minister al-Sisi.
Geneina has repeatedly alleged endemic government corruption and said that the country’s prosecutor general was not investigating many of his hundreds of corruption reports, including against the Interior Ministry. In December 2015, the independent newspaper al-Youm al-Sabaa quoted Geneina as saying that corruption had cost Egypt more than 600 billion pounds (US$67.6 billion) that year.
A few days later, Geneina issued a statement clarifying that the figure represented money lost due to corruption between 2012 and 2015, not just in 2015, and his office issued a 350-page report about corruption. But a committee formed by al-Sisi to investigate the claim accused Geneina of “defamation of state apparatuses,” and some members of parliament called for investigating him. Independent reviews of Geneina’s report by economic journalists and researchers found that despite methodological weaknesses, it did not exaggerate the cost of graft and may have underestimated it.
On March 28, al-Sisi fired Geneina and replaced him with Hisham Badawi, his recently appointed deputy and a former senior member of the Supreme State Security Prosecution who, according to media reports, had investigated corruption cases against former President Hosni Mubarak and several business tycoons, most of which ended with their acquittal.
On May 17, Geneina’s lawyers filed suit at the Administrative Court to contest his dismissal, saying it was unconstitutional and unlawful. They also claimed he was fired after pro-government TV anchors systematically targeted him. A court postponed a hearing on the lawsuit until September 5.
On June 2, the Supreme State Security Prosecution referred Geneina to trial before the New Cairo Minor Offenses Court on charges of disseminating false news that harmed the national interest. Geneina called the case retaliation for speaking out and challenging his dismissal and refused to pay a 10,000-pound (US$118) bail to avoid pretrial detention. He was detained briefly before his family paid the bail.
On June 28, Geneina’s defense team asked the court to suspend his trial until a verdict was reached in a separate lawsuit Geneina had filed against al-Youm al-Sabaa for misquoting him, since the outcome could affect the charges against him, but the court released its verdict as planned on July 28. The judge imposed the maximum sentence under Article 188 of the penal code for disseminating false news.
By law, Egypt’s president appoints the head of the Central Auditing Organization and other independent agencies but cannot fire them before their term ends. But in July 2015, in the absence of a parliament, al-Sisi issued Decree 89 of 2015, granting himself the authority to dismiss agency heads in certain cases, including if they pose a threat to national security, fail to perform their duties, or lose trust.
According to various studies by economic researchers, Egyptian government corruption is widespread and was one of the main drivers of the 2011 uprising. World Bank research found that firms with political connections to the Mubarak government enjoyed policy privileges that not only made them more profitable, but also suppressed aggregate economic growth and catalyzed unemployment.
One study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a prominent local human rights group, found that Egypt lost US$10 billion in gas revenues between 2005 and 2011 as a result of corrupt contracts that allowed gas to be sold abroad for below-market prices. Egypt subsequently faced a drastic energy shortage that has caused daily blackouts in parts of the country, interrupting the lives and work of millions of Egyptians, including at vital facilities such as hospitals.
After Mubarak’s ouster, prosecutors charged many of his high-level officials with corruption offenses, though few have been convicted. Mubarak’s interior minister, Habib al-Adly, was acquitted in corruption cases that could have led to 45 years in prison, though he was convicted and served a three-year sentence for forcing Interior Ministry conscripts to work for him and his family without pay. In May 2016, an aide to Egypt’s health minister was arrested after allegedly receiving bribes worth 4.5 million pounds (US$507,000) from a medical device company.
The charges against Geneina violate international human rights laws that protect free speech. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a party, guarantees freedom of expression and opinion. Limitations are only permissible when they are stated clearly by law and necessary for the protection of the rights or reputation of others, or the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the ICCPR, has stressed that freedom of expression “is a necessary condition for the realization of the principles of transparency and accountability that are, in turn, essential for the promotion and protection of human rights.”
The firing and prosecution of Geneina raise concerns about government attempts to undermine the independence and efficacy of anti-corruption bodies. The Egyptian government should uphold its obligation to foster the autonomy of investigating authorities under its 2005 ratification of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption.
As the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights asserts, “corruption is an enormous obstacle to the realization of all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural, as well as the right to development.”
Transparency International, which ranks Egypt 88th out of 168 countries in terms of corruption, found that bribery is also pervasive both within Egypt and the entire Middle East and North Africa region. It stated that nearly one out of three citizens who try to obtain basic services in the region must resort to paying bribes, which clearly violates the principles of nondiscrimination and equal access embodied in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1982. Another study by Transparency International found that two out of three Egyptians believe the parliament, media, judiciary, police, and education system to be corrupt, with more than 80 percent believing that corruption either stayed the same or increased following the 2011 uprising.
“If Sisi is serious about fighting corruption within Egypt, as he has said time and again, he should empower the regulatory agencies charged with investigating graft instead of single-handedly weakening the autonomy they depend on,” Houry said. “Protecting the independence of anti-corruption organizations and their officials protects the freedoms and rights of Egyptians.”