The Egyptian authorities are attempting to normalize human rights violations by passing a series of laws to “legalize” their escalating crackdown on freedom of expression, association and assembly, said Amnesty International, six years since recently deceased former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power on 3 July 2013.
The organization has today published a damning overview of human rights in Egypt since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ascent to power, which has been submitted to the UN Human Rights Council ahead of Egypt’s upcoming periodic review of its human rights record in November.
“Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power, the human rights situation in Egypt has experienced a catastrophic and unprecedented deterioration. Through a series of draconian laws and repressive tactics by its security forces, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has orchestrated a concerted campaign to bolster the state’s grip on power by further eroding judicial independence and imposing suffocating restrictions on the media, NGOs, trade unions, political parties, and independent groups and activists,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.
Under his rule and under the guise of fighting terrorism, Egypt has witnessed thousands of arbitrary arrests including hundreds targeting peaceful critics and protesters, as well as continuing impunity for widespread human rights violations including torture and other ill-treatment, mass enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and excessive use of force.
Since 2014, more than 1,891 death sentences have been handed down and at least 174 people executed, often following grossly unfair trials.
Of the 300 human rights recommendations made to Egypt by other states during its previous review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2014, Egypt accepted 237 and partially accepted a further 11. However, Amnesty International’s research indicates that in practice Egypt has failed to implement any reforms in line with these recommendations.
Egypt’s 2017 NGO law is a prime example of the draconian laws the Egyptian authorities have introduced to stifle freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The law grants the authorities the powers to deny registration to NGOs, curtails their activities and funding, and permits prosecution of staff for vaguely worded offences. Plans to amend the NGO law were announced in December 2018 but it remains unclear whether the proposed amendments would address human rights concerns. Since 2014, at least 31 NGO staff members have faced travel bans and the authorities have frozen the assets of 10 individuals and seven NGOs as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the foreign funding of NGOs.
In 2018 Egyptian authorities approved new media and cybercrime laws which have further empowered them to censor print, online and broadcast media. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, since May 2017, the authorities have blocked at least 513 websites, including news sites and websites of human rights organizations.
A series of legislative amendments signed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2017 have also allowed the authorities to carry out mass arbitrary arrests, permit indefinite pre-trial detention and undermine the right to a fair trial.
Since 2013, thousands have been held in pre-trial detention for prolonged periods, sometimes for up to five years, often in inhuman and cruel conditions lacking adequate medical care and with little or no access to family visits. In some cases, police have even detained individuals for months after the courts had ordered their release.
Throughout the period, the Egyptian authorities have routinely relied on a colonial era law on assembly, adopted in 1914, and the draconian protest law of 2013 as well as and the 2015 counter-terrorism law to arbitrarily restrict freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
During an intensified crackdown between December 2017 and January 2019, at least 158 people were arrested for peacefully criticizing the authorities, attending political gatherings or taking part in protests. More recently, in May and June 2019, the Egyptian authorities arrested at least 10 peaceful opponents, including a former member of parliament, opposition party leaders, journalists and activists.
Egypt’s Military Justice Code also continues, contrary to international standards, to allow trials of civilians before military courts, which lack independence and are inherently unfair. Hundreds have been sentenced to death after unfair mass trials.
The authorities have also passed laws that have enhanced restrictions on independent trade unions and have bolstered impunity for senior members of the armed forces for crimes committed between 2013 and 2016, a period during which hundreds of protesters were unlawfully killed by security forces.
Amendments to Egypt’s constitution adopted in 2019 weaken the rule of law, undermine the independence of the judiciary, expand military trials for civilians, further erode fair trial guarantees and enshrine impunity for members of the armed forces.
The constitutional amendments will also enable President al-Sisi to fully control the implementation of laws that “legalize” repression by granting him far-reaching powers to appoint senior judges and oversee judicial affairs.
“Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, laws and the judicial system, which are meant to uphold the rule of law and protect people’s rights, have been transformed into tools of repression used to prosecute anyone who peacefully criticizes the authorities, while security forces routinely use torture to extract false confessions and obtain convictions in grossly unfair trials,” said Magdalena Mughrabi.
“The international community must stop being silent witnesses to the Egyptian authorities’ decimation of civil society, crushing of all signs of dissent and jailing of peaceful critics and opponents who face torture, enforced disappearances and cruel and inhuman prison conditions. States, particularly those who made human rights recommendations to Egypt during its last UN review have a duty to speak out to stop this catastrophic human rights decline.”
Amnesty International is also calling on all states to take concrete action and suspend the transfer of policing equipment and surveillance technology being used by Egyptian authorities to repress peaceful opposition.