Security forces arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people in response to planned protests in Egypt yesterday, said Amnesty International, after large numbers of security forces deployed to prevent demonstrators from gathering in Cairo and elsewhere.
The Front of Defense for Egyptian Protesters (FDEP) early this morning told Amnesty International that they knew of at least 238 people, including foreign nationals, activists and journalists, who were arrested on April 25 across Egypt. The FDEP is a group of local activists, including human rights lawyers, formed to protect peaceful demonstrators from human rights violations. The “Freedom for the Brave” movement, another local watchdog, had logged a list of 168 names late yesterday as activists continued to identify detainees.
“The Egyptian authorities appear to have orchestrated a heavy-handed and ruthlessly efficient campaign to squash this protest before it even began. Mass arrests, road blocks and huge deployments of security forces made it impossible for peaceful demonstrations to take place,” said Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s interim Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Sadly, crushing freedom of peaceful assembly and violating other rights is entirely in keeping with the Egyptian government’s response to any kind of criticism.”
The protests were called after Egypt’s government ceded two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia – a move a range of civil society groups have condemned as unconstitutional and lacking in transparency. The day of April 25 is a public holiday in Egypt and marks the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982.
Over 90 people were arrested in the lead up to the planned protests, between April 21 and 24, according to figures released by Egyptian human rights organizations and Freedom for the Brave.
Many of those arrested in the crackdown have been remanded in custody on multiple charges, including breaching the counter-terrorism law, the Protest Law and other laws regulating public assemblies, as well as “national security” offences under the Penal Code.
Those detained over the last week include several leading activists linked to Egypt’s human rights and protest movements. They include Ahmed Abdullah, chair of the board of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who was arrested by what his representatives described as “Special Forces” at his home early on April 25. He faces multiple charges, including of inciting violence to overthrow the government, joining a “terrorist” group and promoting “terrorism.”
Labor lawyer and spokesperson for the Revolutionary Socialist Movement Haytham Mohammedein was also arrested at his home in the early hours of April 22 by National Security officers, who refused to show him an arrest warrant.
He was blindfolded during interrogation by the officers, and presented to the public prosecutor after more than 24 hours from the time of his arrest, against Egypt’s Constitution, one of his lawyers told Amnesty International. The prosecutor ordered his detention for 15 days on charges of “joining the banned Muslim Brotherhood,” “planning to overthrow the regime,” and “calling for protests against the redrawing of the maritime borders of the country,” according to the his lawyer. He is being held in a Central Security Forces camp, called Kilo 10.5, on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road.
Others caught up in the crackdown include well-known activist Sanaa Seif, who has said she has been summoned for questioning by a prosecutor, and lawyer Malek Adly, against whom an arrest warrant has been issued.
Reports of a heavy security presence around central Cairo, including road blocks and armed police, were circulating since the early morning of April 25, indicating that the Egyptian government intended to quell the protests. The president described the planned demonstrations as an attempt to destabilize the state, while the interior minister threatened severe consequences for anyone crossing “red lines.”
“The authorities say they are restoring stability and security, but their paranoia has created a real blind spot and appears to have rendered them incapable of distinguishing between peaceful demonstrations and genuine security threats,” said Mughrabi.
Amnesty International is urging the Egyptian authorities to respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Anyone detained for peacefully protesting should be released.
Egypt’s Protest Law prohibits protesters from staging demonstrations without the consent of the authorities, and gives security forces sweeping powers to disperse “unauthorized” demonstrations. In practice, the authorities have facilitated protests by supporters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, while routinely dispersing demonstrations by his opponents.
Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed its concerns over the draconian counter-terrorism law. The vague and overly broad definition of “terrorist act” included in the law allows the authorities to suppress any form of peaceful dissent.
The demonstrations follow mass protests 11 days ago, after the handover of the uninhabited islands was announced. The April 15 demonstrations were the largest seen in Egypt for over two years.