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A draconian counterterrorism law expanding the Egyptian authorities’ iron grip on power would strike at the very heart of basic freedoms and human rights principles and must be scrapped immediately or fundamentally revised.

The draft law, which is being discussed by the cabinet today, represents a flagrant attack on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. It also weakens safeguards to ensure fair trials and widens the use of the death penalty. If approved the law could be signed off by the President and ratified within days.

“The proposed counterterrorism law vastly expands the Egyptian authorities’ powers and threatens the most fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. If approved, it is set to become yet another tool for the authorities to crush all forms of dissent,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.

“The Egyptian cabinet must drop the repressive draft law or fundamentally revise it to bring it in line with the Egyptian Constitution and international human rights law and standards.”

In its current form, the draft law grants sweeping powers to the Egyptian President. In the absence of an Egyptian Parliament these powers are without oversight and the authority granted to the President is near absolute. The draft law also permits the authorities to take extreme measures that would usually only be invoked during a state of emergency, and it disregards the stringent conditions required for such measures in international law and standards.

“One of the key reasons the Egyptian people took to the streets in 2011 was to abolish the 30-year-long state of emergency imposed by Hosni Mubarak. Granting the current President similar absolute powers is a deadly blow to human rights in Egypt,” said Said Boumedouha.

The draft counterterrorism law was introduced by the State Council shortly after the killing of the Public Prosecutor on 29 June and the wave of deadly attacks against the security forces in the North Sinai Peninsula which killed at least 17 members of the security forces.

“The counterterrorism law is a clear knee-jerk reaction to consolidate the authorities’ iron grip on power in order to counter recent security threats. While the Egyptian authorities have an obligation to maintain security they should not trample all over human rights in the process,” said Said Boumedouha.

The law also imposes severe restrictions on journalists and others reporting on “terrorist” attacks who include details or statistics that differ from those announced by the state. Those who do so could face at least two years in prison. The draft law would effectively ban journalists from collecting information from different sources, including eye witnesses and families, to challenge the government’s narrative. At least 18 journalists are already in detention on charges that include “broadcasting false information,” which is not a recognized under international law.

“The draconian new measures would effectively place a gag order on journalists attempting to independently report facts as they perceive them. It is a plain effort by the authorities to blackmail and intimidate journalists who challenge the official narrative,” said Said Boumedouha.

The draft law also expands the definition of what constitutes a “terrorist act” using broad parameters such as “disturbing public order and social peace,” “harming national unity and national economy,” and “impeding the application of the provisions of the constitution and national laws.”

“If the law is adopted in its current form, it will have the potential to criminalize the legitimate exercise of human rights, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, posing a particular risk to journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and others,” said Said Boumedouha.

Thousands of people, including peaceful protesters, human rights activists and journalists are already languishing in Egypt’s prisons facing similar charges that include “disturbing public order and social peace” and “impeding the application of the laws.”

The law also establishes special terrorism courts to rule on “terrorist” offences and adds new offences to the list of those punishable by death. International standards clearly state that military or other special jurisdictions should not have the authority to impose the death penalty, and that the scope of its application should never be extended.

Terrorism courts are obliged under the draft law to expedite verdicts and limit appeals before the court of cassation. The appeals process previously took place in two stages, removing this provision would abolish a key fair trial guarantee for those convicted by these special courts and put hundreds of people at risk of execution after deeply flawed expedited proceedings.

“Hundreds of Egyptians have already been sentenced to death in Egypt after grossly unfair trials. The counterterrorism law would see scores more at risk of execution after similarly egregious proceedings. Instead of finding a way to expand the application of the death penalty, the authorities should be taking steps to end its use,” said Said Boumedouha.

Seven men were executed in Egypt in 2015 after grossly unfair trials including in special military courts.