Tuesday, November 3, 2009

UN expert issues damning report on Egypt’s counter-terrorism measures

By Sarah Carr / Daily News Egypt
First Published: October 29, 2009

The United Nations Special Rapporteur (SR) on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism was strongly critical of the legal framework governing Egypt’s counter terrorism activity in a report issued this week.

The report, which details SR Martin Scheinin’s fact-finding mission to Egypt from April 17–21, 2009 when he met government officials, the prosecutor general, NGOs and academics, says that the 28-year state of emergency in Egypt has become “the norm.”

Hossam Bahgat, director of NGO the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) described the report as being of “extreme significance,” telling Daily News Egypt that it is “the first report ever to be presented by a UN investigator to the Human Rights Council following a fact-finding mission to the country.”

“Despite the limited scope of the mission, due to the government’s refusal to allow the SR to visit prisons, interview detainees or observe trials, we believe the report’s findings provide a comprehensive analysis of everything that is wrong with Egypt’s security apparatus,” Bahgat commented, adding that the government must take “immediate steps to fully implement the report’s recommendations.”

The 32-page report describes counter-terrorism measures carried out under the Emergency Law that impact virtually every area of public life in Egypt, including detainee rights, freedom of expression and the freedom to stage demonstrations and public gatherings.

The SR is dismissive of the Egyptian authorities’ claim that the continual renewal of the state of emergency since 1981 is justified because of a host of “destabilizing factors including the position of the northern part of the Sinai desert which borders Gaza; the activities of the terrorist organization Hezbollah; the presence on the Egyptian territory of elements linked to the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, the increased accessibility of Al-Qaeda’s propaganda online; the existence of Islamist movements in the Middle East in general, and the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in particular.”

The SR points out that since the end of the 1990s, terrorist attacks in Egypt have been “isolated and sporadic.” The report is critical of the state of emergency having become the “norm” in Egypt.

“A state of emergency almost continuously in force for more than 50 years in Egypt is not a state of exceptionality; it has become the norm, which must never be the purpose of a state of emergency,” the report reads.

The SR expresses concern at the “frequency and range of practices allowed for and facilitated by the wide powers established by the Emergency Law.”

The report notes that the definition of terrorism provided in Egyptian law does not conform to the characterization described by the SR.

Rather, terrorist crimes are defined in much broader terms under the Egyptian penal code, and include violent acts aimed at “disturbing the peace” committed for a wide range of purposes such as “preventing or impeding public authorities in the performance of their work.”

Of particular concern, the report says, is that a number of these offences carry the death penalty.

Emergency law powers are frequently applied in circumstances that have no clear link to terrorist violence, the SR notes, including the arrest and detention of a number of Internet bloggers critical of the government, human rights activists, members of the country’s largest opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood, and journalists.

The SR is critical of Emergency Law powers which in practice give State Security Investigations (SSI) officers “carte blanche” to arrest and detain individuals “who are dangerous to public security and order.” These powers do not require that the commission or preparation of a crime be specifically identified.

In practice, some individuals have been held in administrative detention without charge for years despite receiving court release orders.

Lack of adequate monitoring of places of detention has resulted in terrorist suspects being held incommunicado in “underground SSI cells,” putting them beyond the protection of the law, the SR says.

Rights groups implicate the failure of the public prosecution office and other legal bodies empowered to search places of detention to actually do so in the systematic and widespread practice of torture carried out in Egypt.

The SR notes that only a small number of police officers have been subject to investigations and trial following torture complaints, and that “serious and frequent allegations of torture” against SSI officers have produced no results.

A significant portion of the report is dedicated to the draft counter-terrorism law that the government has announced will replace the Emergency Law.

The SR expresses doubts that provisions of the draft law (whose content has not yet been released) as described to him will be an improvement on the existing legal framework.

Changes to article 179 of the Egyptian Constitution introduced in 2007 as part of the move towards the introduction of the counter-terrorism law allow terrorism suspects to be arrested, interrogated and monitored without judicial oversight.

The SR suggests that article 179 “is not conducive to a genuine move away from practices that are facilitated by the emergency law framework and climate currently prevailing in Egypt. In short, article 179 of the Constitution carries features of a permanent state of emergency, although under a new name.”

The report concludes with a warning that a planned online strategy aimed at combating terrorists’ use of the internet risks the suppression of “unpalatable views which, while unpleasant, may not create a real danger of imminent violence.”

Said Haddadi, a researcher within Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program, told Daily News Egypt that many recommendations in this report “are long-standing calls of Amnesty International and other national and international human rights organizations.”