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Egypt Using Remote Hearings to Isolate Prisoners

New Proceedings by Videoconference Hide Detention Violations

The courthouse at the new Badr Prison in Badr city, 65 kms east of the Egyptian capital Cairo, during a government-guided tour for the media, January 16, 2022.  © 2022 Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

Egypt has begun holding detention renewal sessions for pre-trial detainees remotely via videoconference, with detainees attending the sessions from prisons under police custody. The move further increases the isolation of Egyptian “political” prisoners, making it less likely that abuses of detainees will come to light.

The Supreme State Security Prosecution is taking a cue from courts, which since 2022 have widely conducted detention extension hearings by videoconference, in some cases avoiding bringing detainees to court in person. Prosecutors in Egypt can unilaterally order detentions of suspects for 150 days before there is any judicial review, so the stakes of these hearings are high.

Human Rights Watch recently concluded that this system exacerbates longstanding abusive pretrial detention practices and flagrant due process violations. Under this system, judges frequently do not allow detainees or lawyers sufficient time to speak or describe prison conditions. Detainees are less likely to speak freely about detention abuses in the presence of prison officials who have control over their day-to-day life.

There is no reason to suspect that these same problems will not be replicated under prosecutors’ pretrial detention sessions.

Egypt holds tens of thousands of people detained solely for peaceful speech or criticism, or political affiliation. Many are arbitrarily denied visits or correspondences with family and lawyers for months or years. Now, they could remain locked up for up to two years, the maximum pretrial detention period allowed under Egyptian law, with little to no access to adequate legal counsel or ability to complain about their detention conditions in open court. And the two year limit itself is no guarantee, as authorities have often kept detainees beyond the legal limit, employing pretrial detention as a punishment against critics.

Detainees’ statements to prosecutors and courts have been an irreplaceable source for documenting severe human rights violations carried out by Egyptian authorities in places of detention. By further eliminating their ability to speak up, authorities are trying to stamp out all remaining criticism of abuses, effectively locking prisoners away, muzzling them, and throwing away the key.

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