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(Beirut) – An Egyptian criminal court decision on January 12, 2017, designating about 1,500 citizens “terrorists” for their alleged assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood reflects the authorities’ indiscriminate use of broad counterterrorism laws, Human Rights Watch said today. Using these laws to impose penalties on people without giving them a chance to defend themselves seriously violates their rights to due process.

Detainees sit behind bars during the trial of 738 Muslim Brotherhood members accused of staging an armed sit-in at Rabaa square, at a court on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, May 31, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

The designation’s immediate effects include a travel ban, asset freeze, loss of political rights, and passport cancellation. The people involved were not able to contest the designation, and most may not have been informed about it before the court ruled. The decision can be appealed directly to Egypt’s highest appeals court.

“Dumping hundreds of people onto a list of alleged terrorists, with serious ramifications for their freedom and livelihood, and without even telling them, makes a mockery of due process,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The Cairo criminal court decision, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, added 1,538 people to a national terrorists list based on a request from prosecutors. The court accepted the government’s allegation that the defendants had provided financial assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood and helped it conduct military training and plan attacks on security forces.

Prosecutors should withdraw their request for the designations, and parliament should cancel the relevant law or amend it to ensure due process guarantees a narrower and more specific definition of terrorism.

Among those placed on the list were former President Mohamed Morsy and his sons; senior Brotherhood leaders and their sons and daughters; Safwan Thabet, a businessman; the former soccer star Mohamed Abu Trika; Mostafa Sakr, a newspaper publisher; and Hisham Gaafar, a journalist. At least five deceased individuals were placed on the list by the decision, Human Rights Watch confirmed.

Lawyers for several of the people told Human Rights Watch that the authorities did not inform their clients about any related court sessions and that they first knew about the decision from media outlets that reported it on January 17.

The terrorist designations were based on Law 8 of 2015 for Organizing Lists of Terrorist Entities and Terrorists, issued by a decree by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in February 2015, in the absence of a parliament. The law authorizes the prosecutor general to request designated Cairo criminal courts to name individuals or groups to the list for three-year renewable periods. The court has seven days to consider the request before deciding.

The law violates several legal protections laid out in the Egyptian Constitution, previous decisions of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, and international human rights law.

The consequences for people designated as “terrorists” under this law are similar to those for people convicted at trial, but the law does not require finding them guilty of a crime and makes no provision for them to contest the evidence prosecutors present in their request, violating the individuals’ right to fair trial. Human Rights Watch was able to verify that many people added to the list on January 12 are either currently on trial or in pretrial detention.

The definition of terrorism in the law exceeds even the overly broad language in Egypt’s penal code. The 2015 law defines a “terrorist entity” as a group that practices or advocates infringements on public order or national unity; harm to the environment, antiquities, or public or private property; obstruction of public or private transportation; or impeding the application of the provisions of the constitution, laws, or regulations.

Such a framework criminalizes activities that go far beyond the description of terrorist acts in United Nations Security Council resolution 1566, unanimously adopted in 2004. That resolution described terrorism as acts committed with the intent to kill, cause serious bodily injury, or take hostages with the aim of intimidating or terrorizing a population or compelling a government or international organization to do or abstain from doing something.

The overbroad definition of terrorism in the 2015 law runs counter to a basic principle in international human rights law that requires laws to be precisely drafted and understandable as a safeguard against their arbitrary use and so that people know what actions constitute a crime. Egypt’s constitution endorses this principle, and its Supreme Constitutional Court has previously ruled that ambiguous penal statutes allow authorities to apply the law according to “personal norms” and “subjective inclinations” and preclude courts from applying “strict, definitive rules.”

Furthermore, the court’s January 12 decision to list hundreds of individuals rests on a request from a government committee in charge of seizing Muslim Brotherhood assets whose authority remains legally unclear.

A Cairo urgent matters court, whose jurisdiction is normally temporary civil injunctions, first banned the activities of the Brotherhood in September 2013. Based on that decision, Egypt’s cabinet formed a committee days later to seize and manage all assets connected to the Brotherhood or its members. In February 2014, the urgent matters court ruled that the Brotherhood was a banned terrorist group. That ruling remains on appeal and legal analysts have said that the court most likely exceeded its jurisdiction.

Since the committee’s formation, it has seized tens of millions of Egyptian pounds and hundreds of schools, clinics, and other institutions, but Egyptian administrative courts have repeatedly overturned its decisions, ruling that the committee exceeded its mandate and encroached on judicial prerogatives. The dispute is under review at the Supreme Constitutional Court and the Supreme Administrative Court.

Egypt’s highest appeals court, the Cassation Court – which hears appeals from people named to the terrorist list – in September 2015 overturned a previous decision by prosecutors to add high-ranking Brotherhood leaders to the terrorist list. The court ruled that the prosecutors had not obtained a ruling from a competent court. The Cassation Court has accepted appeals by individuals named to the terrorist list in several other situations.

Like many courts since the military removed former President Morsy in 2013, the criminal court also appeared to rely entirely on evidence from the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency for its January 12 decision.

Egypt’s parliament should repeal the terrorist entities law or amend it extensively to bring it within international standards, and prosecutors should file requests to repeal the terrorist listings made so far. Assets should be frozen only by judicial decisions that follow due process, Human Rights Watch said.

“Terrorism is a real issue in Egypt, but the authorities are using blunt tools of questionable legality to confront the problem,” Stork said. “Such an approach disregards facts indiscriminately labels opponents as terrorists, and makes no effort to sort the guilty from the innocent.”

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