Human Rights Developments
Long-term detention without charge or trial, torture, extreme isolation of political prisoners in appalling conditions, a sharp rise in deaths in custody, and continuing executions of civilians condemned to death by military courts were features of the dismal human rights picture in 1995. The official investigation of the presumed death under torture of Islamist defense lawyer Abdel Harith Madani, in April 1994, yielded no public information, and security forces harassed and intimidated his young widow in an attempt to force her silence about the controversial case.
The government prepared for the November 29 parliamentary elections_the first since 1990_by jailing leading opposition candidates and campaigners. The contest for the 444 seats unfolded against a backdrop of continuing emergency law and an unrelenting crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the principal political opposition force in Egypt. The group, which was banned in 1954 and lacks official legal status as a party, planned to run 150 candidates as independents, in almost half of the country's electoral districts. The Brotherhood re-emerged in the 1970s under former president Anwar Sadat and, until this year's arrests, had been tolerated by authorities, its members operating openly in Egyptian public life, calling for the full adoption of Islamic law, and eschewing the use of violence. In August, President Mubarak used his emergency law powers to order the trial of forty-nine prominent Muslim Brothers before a military court, the first time in thirty years that members of the group faced military prosecutors. None of these civilian defendants were indicted for violent offenses. In October, another thirty-three Muslim Brothers, including parliamentary candidates, were referred to the military court.
In other developments, the state initiated measures to curb press freedom and control independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Senior officials denied a pattern of rights violations and, instead, publicly excoriated the integrity of human rights organizations and obstructed their activities. Intellectuals and rights groups warned that a controversial court ruling in June, which declared a university professor an apostate because of his academic writings and ordered his separation from his wife, imperiled freedom of expression.
Acts of political violence punctuated the year, from the attempted assassination of President Mubarak on June 26 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to bloody encounters inside Egypt in which civilians, members of the security forces, and known or suspected Islamist militants lost their lives. The clandestine Islamic Group continued its violent attacks against security forces and suspected police collaborators, and did not spare civilians when it carried out so-called revenge operations for security forces raids in which its members had been shot dead. It claimed responsibility, for example, for killing eight policemen and three civilians in four simultaneous attacks in Mallawi on January 2. In one of the attacks, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) reported, armed militants stopped a pick-up truck and fired indiscriminately at the passengers. On March 22, several hours after an Islamic Group leader and two of his colleagues were killed in Minya, militants opened fire on police in a train traveling between Minya and Assyut; three civilians, two policemen, and one militant were killed in the exchange of fire.
Christians were shot dead in villages in the south by suspected Islamist extremists who went unapprehended. On July 8, pharmacist Khayri Fahmi Girges was killed in his field near Mallawi. Residents said that one month earlier Girges had received anonymous letters threatening him with death unless he reversed his decision to donate part of his land to the Coptic archdiocese of Mallawi. The influential weekly Rose al-Yusuf reported on September 25 that eleven Christians had been killed in Upper Egypt in September alone, all of them wealthy jewelers or landowners. The magazine criticized the news blackout about these targeted sectarian killings.
In an astounding statement, Interior Minister Hassan el-Alfi suggested that the state had the right to carry out extrajudicial executions of militants. "The security forces are very concerned about human rights," he said in an interview with al-Wafd on May 10. "During the past years, we have been very patient in our fight against terrorism. We could have annihilated the terrorists.... We found weapons and got full confessions from the people who are currently in prison, which would have entitled us to kill them on the spot." Numerous extrajudicial executions have, however, been reported in recent years. In a report released on December 1, 1994, EOHR expressed "grave suspicions" that, over the previous seven months, eleven suspected Islamic Group members in Minya "were killed intentionally by gunfire shortly after their arrest, or when they were not in a position to resist." In 1995, known or suspected militants continued to be shot dead in raids by "anti-terrorism units."
Since 1992, military courts have tried and condemned to death civilians charged with acts of political violence in proceedings that have not complied with international fair trial standards. In 1995, executions were carried out swiftly after death sentences by these courts, with no appeal to a higher tribunal_in violation of international standards. Two men found guilty of the October 1994 attempted assassination of writer Naguib Mahfouz were sentenced to death on January 10 and hanged on March 29. As of August 6, forty-eight of the sixty-four civilians condemned to death by military courts since 1992 had been executed. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry informed Human Rights Watch in June 1993 that cases referred to military courts involved "terrorist groups that have committed the crimes of killing and harming public property, especially when committed on the strength of extremist beliefs." The trial that began on September 16 of forty-nine Muslim Brothers, none of whom were charged with crimes involving violence, was a significant departure from these stated guidelines.
Prison conditions, and an alarming rise in prisoner deaths, emerged as a major issue in 1995. Defense lawyers expressed extreme concern about inadequate food, lack of medical care, and physical abuse of political prisoners, particularly at new facilities such as Wadi Jedid, Aqrab, and Fayoum, where contact with outsiders was severely restricted or nonexistent. One attorney told us in July that he was permitted two minutes at Wadi Jedid earlier in the year to see Hassan Gharabawy, a lawyer detained without charge since 1989: "They brought him to me crawling, then they told him to 'visit.' He got up, collapsed, and said: 'I do not want anything. I am dying slowly.'"
Authorities made it difficult for lawyers to collect detailed information about conditions and medical care at Wadi Jedid, first by denying entry even to those with official permits to visit and then by limiting the time with prisoners to five minutes. Visits to Aqrab and Fayoum prisons were prohibited. In August, lawyers provided us with the names of twenty-three prisoners who reportedly died at Wadi Jedid since it opened in February. One of them, thirty-five-year-old defense lawyer Mustafa Iraqi from Fayoum, was arrested in December 1992, tried and acquitted by a military court in August 1993, but never released. Authorities said that Iraqi died on June 20 of natural causes from a lung ailment, but his family and lawyer have not received a copy of the medical report. Lawyers reported that gathering information about these and other deaths was exceedingly difficult because families were intimidated by security forces and afraid to speak.
Continuing a pattern Human Rights Watch/Middle East has documented since 1992, defense lawyers who represented detained Islamist militants were subjected to intimidating surveillance, harassment and other forms of pressure by State Security Investigation (SSI), the elite internal-security arm of the interior ministry. Over forty lawyers remained imprisoned without charge or trial under emergency law detention orders, despite repeated court orders to release them, including Hassan Gharabawi (detained since November 1989), and Abdel Moneim Muhamed Muhamed and Shaaban Ali Ibrahim (detained since June 1990).
Stepped-up government pressure against the nonviolent Islamist political opposition began in late 1994. Journalist Adel Hussein, secretary general of the opposition Labor Party which works in political alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, was summoned for questioning by state security prosecutors on December 24, 1994, on suspicion of links with extremists purportedly because Islamic Group leaflets were found "under his seat" on a flight to Cairo. He was detained until January 18, pursuant to the 1992 "anti-terrorism" amendments to the penal code. These provisions grant prosecutors the power to detain anyone for up to six months, without judicial review, for investigation of the vaguely-worded offense of promoting, by any means, the aims of groups that "seek to suspend the constitution or laws, prevent state authorities from carrying out their duties, threaten personal or public liberties, or harm national unity or social peace." After his release, Hussein termed his detention a "farce" that was designed to intimidate the political opposition.
The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood followed, beginning with the arrest of twenty-eight men, all of them active in public life, on January 23. They included former members of parliament Hassan el-Gamal, Dr. Eissam al-Erian (deputy secretary general of the Egyptian medical syndicate), and Dr. Ibrahim Zafarani (secretary general of the medical syndicate in Alexandria). There were additional roundups throughout the year. On July 17, former parliamentarian Dr. Muhamed el-Sayed Habib, geology professor and head of the faculty club at Assyut University, was arrested with seventeen others. On October 9, fifteen prominent figures were arrested, including lawyer Muhamed Gharib and parliamentary candidates Dr. Abdel Moneim Abul-Futuh (assistant secretary general of the Arab Doctors Union) and Mahmoud Hussein (treasurer of the engineers association), and other elected leaders of professional associations. All of the aforementioned were among the Muslim Brothers being tried before the military court (see below). On October 31, candidate Ahmad Seif Islam Hassan al-Banna, a sixty-two-year-old lawyer and bar association leader, was arrested with six others while campaigning in a Cairo neighborhood.
One aspect of the government campaign was to discredit the Brotherhood in the eyes of the Egyptian public in advance of the parliamentary elections. State ministries issued statements intended to link the Brotherhood to terrorism and violence, without providing specific information about the basis for the allegations. When 149 people were arrested at a summer youth camp near Alexandria on July 28, MENA (Middle East News Agency) said that the camp was being used by the Brotherhood, which it described as a "terrorist organization," for training "in violent physical exercises, karate, and Kung Fu....and teaching the terrorist concepts that depend on repudiating society and changing it by penetrating its vital sectors and recruiting its members to serve terrorism and extremism."
Brotherhood leaders countered with pleas for the right to participate without restrictions in Egypt's political system. "The government has arrested any Muslim Brotherhood members found distributing leaflets," official spokesman Mamoun al-Hudaybi said in an April interview in Filastin al-Muslimah (London). "The Muslim Brotherhood cannot organize a public meeting in a public place....How can we address the people if there are no leaflets, especially since the entire media is monopolized by the government, which exploits it to serve its candidates?"
The confrontation escalated when President Mubarak on August 31 ordered the trial before the Supreme Military Court of forty-nine well-known Muslim Brothers, including one in absentia. None of them were accused of crimes involving violence. But Interior Minister el-Alfi claimed that prosecutors had proof that the defendants were involved in terrorism. In an interview published in al-Ahram on August 26, he said: "It has been proven that the elements of the dissolved Muslim Brotherhood are involved in backing and supporting terrorism. The prosecution's interrogation of detained suspects has revealed this. Investigations disclosed many important things and substantiated evidence irrefutably." Yet, the accusations presented at the trial's opening session on September 16 were limited to nonviolent offenses such as belonging to a proscribed group, recruitment of new members, and organizational leadership and fundraising activities. On October 30, the defense team of over sixty lawyers withdrew from the case. "There is not a single proof of criminal activity," one of the lawyers told the press the next day. "This is a political case that is not for a criminal court to decide." Earlier in the month, on October 15, President Mubarak referred another thirty Muslim Brothers to the military court. Sixteen of them were planning to run for parliament, some standing in for prospective candidates and former parliamentarians who had been arrested earlier in the year and were brought before the military court in September.
Press freedom suffered a major setback on May 27 when parliament hastily passed Law 93 of 1995, with only forty-five of 444 legislators present for the vote. The content of the new law_as well as the lack of advance notice and public debate prior to its passage_generated angry protests from journalists. The law amended the penal code, mandating fines and imprisonment for broadly defined offenses such as "publishing false or biased rumors, news and statements or disconcerting propaganda" if such material "offends social peace, arouses panic amongst people, harms public interest, or shows contempt for state institutions or officials." The law also cancelled statutes that prohibited the detention of journalists for investigation of press-related offenses, and it stiffened penalties for defamation and libel, while eliminating the burden on prosecutors to prove malicious intent. The government responded to the public furor with a compromise, deciding in June to form a special committee, appointed by the state-controlled Higher Press Council and including journalists, to review all press legislation and draft a comprehensive new law to present to parliament at the end of 1995. On October 8, the journalists' syndicate criticized the slow pace of the committee's work, warning that it would withdraw its representatives from the committee if a new law was not drafted by December 24.
There was increasing evidence of a coordinated government effort to exert greater control over independent NGOs and restrict their activities. In February, Cairo-based groups formed a coalition to call attention to moves by the state to challenge their legal status and interfere with funding from international donors. One area of concern was a legal memorandum prepared by the Ministry of Justice in January, that threatened the survival of NGOs that were registered as civil companies but were not profit-making enterprises. Some groups have used this legal option as an alternative to seeking status under the restrictive Law 32 of 1964 that governs private associations. The memorandum stated that such civil companies were in violation of the law_and subject to prosecution, imprisonment and fines for criminal offenses_because NGOs should be regulated by the Ministry of Social Affairs, pursuant to Law 32. The memorandum further stated that such groups could not legally secure funding from any foreign institution or individual. This ruling was reinforced by the Foreign Ministry, which in January called a meeting of funding organizations to stress that it was prohibited to provide grants to groups not registered under Law No. 32. There were also plans to create a government-appointed NGO coordinating council that would supervise the plans, activities and funding of the NGO community. These proposed legal and administrative mechanisms for greater control over the long term were accompanied by blatant interference throughout the year with activities scheduled by various NGOs.
The term "intellectual terrorism" was used frequently in Egypt during the year to describe the legal maneuvers of conservative Muslim activists against targeted individuals for their intellectual expression. Nothing illustrated this more dramatically than the case against Dr. Nasr Abu Zeid, a professor of Islamic Studies and Linguistics at Cairo University, who was declared an apostate by a civil appeals court in June and was ordered separated from his wife. The court's decision raised deep fears about the future of freedom of expression in Egypt because of the power of dogmatic religious forces to intimidate and silence intellectuals.
Dr. Abu Zeid, a Muslim, was first targeted in 1992, when a university committee voted to deny him promotion because one member argued that his academic writing contained "clear affronts to the Islamic faith." (This decision was reversed in May 1995, when the university council granted Dr. Abu Zeid status as a full professor.) Dr. Abu Zeid was targeted again in 1993, when an Islamist lawyer filed suit in the Giza Personal Status Court to divorce Dr. Abu Zeid from his Muslim wife, Dr. Ibtihal Unis, also a university professor, on the grounds that he was an apostate. In January 1994, the court threw out the case, ruling that the plaintiffs did not have standing. The decision was challenged before the Cairo Court of Appeals, which on June 14 cancelled the lower court's ruling and announced its controversial decision to separate Dr. Abu Zeid from his wife. The appeal court cleared the way for the decision first by ruling that the lawyers who brought the lawsuit had standing because the Islamic legal principle of hisba_any Muslim's right to legal action in matters considered harmful to Islam_applied in personal status matters, and then by declaring Dr. Abu Zeid an apostate.
The appellants cited Dr. Abu Zeid's academic writings, which they claimed contained heretical statements, to establish their case, and the appeals court agreed. Referring to specific passages from Dr. Abu Zeid's writings, the court found that his academic work "constitutes a direct attack against God's verses [in the Quran]." The court stated that Dr. Abu Zeid "denies the existence of devils and makes their presence a merely psychological matter in the minds of the first Islamic believers, and that the Quran merely acquiesced to their understandings and culture." Dr. Abu Zeid's writing indicated that he "refused to acquiesce to God's legislation, claiming that it is related to a specific historical period, and asking that the mind begin to exchange them with contemporary meanings that are more humane and progressive, better than the literal meanings," the court concluded.
"This dark medieval nonsense has to stop," wrote prominent sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim in a July editorial in the monthly Civil Society. EOHR termed the decision "unprecedented in the history of modern Egypt, that is, to separate a husband from his wife against their will, due to opinions expressed and adopted by one of them." In a July report, the Cairo-based Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA) warned of the dangerous precedent set by the appeal court's acceptance of a case based on hisba because it "grants Muslims the right to file lawsuits in cases where, in their opinion, an exalted right of God has been violated," thus inviting "examination of the consciences of writers, intellectuals and researchers." Following the court's ruling, the clandestine Jihad Organization issued a call for the killing of Dr. Abu Zeid as an apostate, and added that anyone opposed to the death penalty for apostasy was himself an apostate.
Human Rights Watch/Middle East reported in 1994 that Muslim converts to Christianity had been questioned by the SSI about their religious beliefs and contacts with non-Christians, and that in some cases the interrogations had involved threats and violence, including torture. We continued to receive information about the harassment of Egyptian Christians by the security apparatus. On September 18, we wrote to authorities about the gross mistreatment, including sexual abuse, of a young Coptic Christian woman, who had been summoned for questioning by SSI in August and again in September. The interrogators sought information about her relationship with Muslim converts to Christianity, and the names of activists in the convert community.
The Right to Monitor
Tensions increased greatly between the state and the human rights movement in 1995. The government used the media and international fora to denigrate independent human rights monitors and reports, and the Interior Ministry escalated its direct interference with the activities of local and international human rights groups. In a February 20 written statement to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the government said that Human Rights Watch reports on Egypt "were based on lies and allegations circulated by terrorists and repeated by some nongovernmental organizations....[T]he aim of Human Rights Watch seems to be to publish false and biased allegations and bring some States into disrepute on a selective and unfair basis." This note verbale was in direct response to a written statement about cases of torture submitted by Human Rights Watch to the commission in January.
Throughout the year, Interior Minister el-Alfi criticized Egyptian and international human rights groups. "Unfortunately, these organizations obtain their information from offenders, weirdos, and people who have a vested interest," he said in an interview published in al-Ahram on August 26. He offered additional words of scorn following the release of EOHR's report on prisons, which was based on seventy-one visits to fifteen facilities: "The reports published by human rights organizations about prison conditions are sheer lies and fabrications, have no basis in truth and are simply aimed at tarnishing Egypt's image," al-Ahram Weekly reported on September 28.
The Interior Ministry monitored and restricted the activities of human rights groups throughout the year. Incidents included: instructions by SSI for the Egyptian Center for Human Rights and Consolidation of National Unity to cancel a conference on sectarian violence in Egypt (January); cancellation of a meeting at the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies for women's groups preparing for the U.N. women's conference in Beijing (May); cancellation of a previously approved training workshop sponsored by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and EOHR on the use of video technology (May); cancellation of a human rights training session by international experts for Egyptian lawyers, sponsored by the CHRLA (July); and the detention, blindfolding and interrogation by SSI of an EOHR lawyer who was on a fact-finding mission in Upper Egypt, during which time his notes and other documents were seized (July 13-15).
Although the internationally recognized EOHR celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1995, it was forced to continue operating without official legal status. It has appealed a lower court ruling that upheld a decision by the Ministry of Social Affairs to deny it registration as a legal NGO. In August, the High Administrative Court postponed until December 4 its decision on the EOHR appeal.
The U.S. was Egypt's largest donor and military supplier in 1995. As in past years, the country enjoyed special status as the second-largest recipient of U.S. military and economic assistance in the world, after Israel. The aid_$1.3 billion from the Foreign Military Financing Program and $815 million in Economic Support Funds_continued to flow, without conditions imposed for practical and measurable human rights improvements, despite the damning assessment of rights conditions presented in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994. Following the release in February of the country report_which senior Egyptian government officials criticized as "lies" and "fabrications"_the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a comforting statement on February 11 that softened the sting: "The determination of the U.S. government to combat terrorism is second to none and our cooperation with the Egyptian government in this matter is extensive and of great mutual importance .... [I]t is important to emphasize that our commitment to the prosperity and security of Egypt and our close relationship with its government remain unchanged and strong." For the balance of the year, Clinton administration officials offered no public criticism of the human rights practices of the Egyptian government. President Mubarak was warmly received during his official visit to Washington, D.C., from April 1-5; regrettably, human rights were deliberately omitted from the agenda of his meeting with President Clinton.
The opening statement of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Robert H. Pelletreau to the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on May 11, described Egypt as "our key Arab partner in efforts to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace and bolster moderate forces in the volatile Middle East." Secretary Pelletreau defended the Clinton administration's FY96 aid request by citing the mutual interest of both countries in "peace, stability, moderation, and development of the region," with no mention of human rights or Egypt's sorry performance.
U.S. Ambassador Edward Walker, in a lengthy interview published in the August 31 issue of the English-language weekly al-Ahram, also characterized the U.S.-Egyptian relationship as "very positive." He added apologetically: "We've had some differences in tactics from time to time, but that's very natural between countries, even with the best of friends like Egypt." The ambassador expressed concern about "the scourge of terrorism," and then offered this noncommittal comment: "You have to balance out the legal protection that people have in any society with the need of law enforcement forces to go after people."
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East
In January, we released Hostage-Taking and Intimidation by Security Forces which documented illegal incommunicado detention of family members to pressure fugitive Islamist militants to surrender to authorities. The report also highlighted security forces use of arbitrary arrest, threats and other forms of intimidation to ensure their own impunity and silence family members from speaking out about cases of disappearance, deaths in detention, possible extrajudicial executions, and excessive use of lethal force. Soon after its release, SSI detained and pressured the wife of Abdel Harith Madani, who died in custody in 1994, not to speak about her husband's case to journalists and human rights organizations. In a February 10 letter to Interior Minister el-Alfi, we protested this attempt to intimidate the widow, and condemned the banning of a story about her harassment from the February 12 issue of the Middle East Times. In February, a Human Rights Watch/Middle East representative traveled to Cairo to gather additional information about the treatment of Madani's widow and discuss the case with lawyers, journalists and government officials. The government did not respond to our requests for meetings. In September we wrote to President Mubarak protesting the expanded use of the military justice system to prosecute civilians.