(Berlin) – The German parliament should reject a proposed security agreement with the Egyptian Interior Ministry, Human Rights Watch said today. The agreement, which is scheduled for a vote on April 28, 2017, lacks human rights protections and would be with a security agency whose officers have committed torture, enforced disappearances, and most likely extrajudicial killings. As a result, it could make German officials complicit in serious human rights violations.
The agreement would establish cooperation in a number of fields, most importantly in combating terrorism. It obliges the authorities of both countries to cooperate in investigations, share information about suspects, and carry out joint operations. It includes only the vaguest reference to “upholding human rights” and lacks any effective guarantee that the major human rights abuses by Egyptian security agencies will end.
“If the German government wants to help protect German and Egyptian citizens from terrorism while respecting human rights, this is a terrible way of going about it,” said Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch. “The German government should be getting cast-iron guarantees that Egypt is calling a halt to its abuses, not rushing to put its agents next to Egyptian forces on the front line of repression.”
Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar signed the agreement with his German counterpart, Thomas de Maizière, in July 2016, but it remains subject to approval by the German Bundestag.
The agreement says it is aimed at combating terrorism and organized crime. It lays out 22 fields in which various German authorities, including the Interior Ministry and federal police, would cooperate with the Egyptian Interior Ministry. They include preventing and combating corruption, human trafficking, drug and weapons smuggling, and money laundering.
Under the agreement, Germany and Egypt would exchange experts on crime prevention, share information on suspects and the structure of criminal groups, carry out “operational measures” in the presence of the partner government’s agents, and share staff and material to assist “operational investigations.”
Egypt’s Interior Ministry has a decades-long history of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture, in violation of both international and Egyptian law and with little or no accountability. Officers of the ministry’s National Security Agency, which has primary responsibility for countering terrorism, have committed most of these abuses, especially in cases in which detainees have been accused of terrorism, which Egyptian law defines broadly. The authorities regularly use allegations of terrorism to criminalize peaceful dissent.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to impose a nationwide state of emergency in response to two Islamic State church bombings on April 9 expanded the National Security Agency’s already wide powers.
It allows the authorities to arrest and search suspects without warrants, conduct limitless surveillance, censor any publication, seize property, restrict public meetings, and set opening and closing times for businesses. Perhaps most worrying, prosecutors can send cases to Emergency State Security Courts, whose trials do not meet international fair trial standards and whose rulings are not subject to appeal.
Egypt’s counterterrorism laws are drawn very broadly and used against peaceful protesters and other political opponents who have faced trial based on nothing more than the unsubstantiated testimony of National Security agents. Most recently, prosecutors used them against a human rights lawyer who represented clients of police abuse. He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for allegedly making threatening posts on his Facebook page.
Egypt’s penal code defines terrorism broadly as “any use of force or violence or any threat or intimidation to disturb public order or jeopardize the safety and security of society, if it would harm or spread terror among individuals or expose their lives, freedoms or security to danger.” Terrorism can also include threats to “disrupt the implementation of the constitution or laws.”
The requirements of the proposed agreement aimed at guaranteeing cooperation in combating terrorism would almost certainly lead to German security agents assisting the Egyptian National Security Agency, Human Rights Watch said.
Since 1992, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the systematic use of torture by police and National Security agents to elicit confessions and punish detainees. In 2011, Human Rights Watch determined that “the government is failing miserably to provide victims of torture and ill-treatment effective remedy, or to deter such abuses from occurring in the future.” Egypt’s inadequate legal framework for punishing torture, the lack of an independent body to investigate the police, and prosecutors’ near-total deference to National Security agents have all contributed to this impunity.
The number of enforced disappearances and likely extrajudicial killings by National Security agents has risen sharply since al-Sisi appointed Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar as interior minister in March 2015. Most recently, Human Rights Watch documented that National Security agents probably killed at least four and possibly as many as 10 men in North Sinai whom they had forcibly disappeared. The authorities then appeared to stage a fake counterterrorism raid to cover up the killings.
The proposed agreement also runs counter to the European Union Foreign Affairs Council’s conclusions about Egypt in 2013, in the wake of the mass killings of at least 1,185 protesters by Egyptian security forces. The council suspended export licenses to Egypt for any equipment that might be used for internal repression and decided to review all security assistance to Egypt.
In August 2014, Human Rights Watch concluded that the mass killings of 2013, overseen by then-Defense Minister al-Sisi and primarily carried out by Interior Ministry forces, probably amounted to crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch said that United Nations member countries should suspend all security assistance to Egypt until the government adopted measures to end serious human rights violations and hold violators accountable, and should avoid complicity in abuses committed by Egyptian authorities.
No government official or member of the security forces has been held accountable for the killings, and prosecutors have opened no investigation. An executive summary of a government fact-finding report released in November 2014 did not recommend charges. Hundreds of people arrested during the fatal protest dispersals in 2013 remain on trial on charges that include joining an armed group, killing security forces, and blocking roads.
The proposed agreement also contains troubling provisions on information sharing. It does set rules for protecting personal data and states that the agreement is not meant to provide information “to be used as evidence in criminal proceedings.” But the agreement would require the partner agencies to inform each other – verbally in urgent cases – when one agency requests information “about the particulars of those involved in criminal offenses, structures of offender groups and criminal organizations and the links between them” and to help “track down the offenders.” This provision raises the possibility that the Egyptian Interior Ministry will use its German partners to obtain information about political opponents who have not committed a crime.
The agreement also appears to encourage voluntary sharing of information “which may be of importance to track down” terrorism suspects in the absence of a request.
Despite the reference to “upholding human rights,” the agreement states clearly that cooperation will be governed by each country’s respective national law and makes no reference to international law regarding arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, or extrajudicial killings. The fact that no National Security officer has ever received a final conviction for torture or ill-treatment shows that Egyptian national law has proven inadequate for preventing these abuses.