CSO's Letter to the African Union Commission about the State of Human Rights in Egypt

by H.E. Moussa Faki Mahamat 

We write to you in your capacity as the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, the secretariat of the continental organisation responsible for driving the political agenda and development of the people of Africa. As Chairperson of the AU Commission, we are assured of your mandate to promote the objectives of the AU. The undersigned organisations work to advance human rights in Africa and write to express deep concerns about the situation of human rights in the Republic of Egypt. In particular, this letter highlights some systematic violations of human rights in Egypt. While we acknowledge that you may well be aware of certain issues raised in this letter, we bring them to light due to the appalling situation and gravity of the violations.

Beyond hosting the Africa CUP of Nations (21 June- 19 July) which brought a lot of excitement to the people of Africa, human rights in Egypt face serious threats. Our concerns span from interference with the system of administration justice, enforced disappearances, attacks against human rights defenders and attacks against the independent media. Moreover, we are concerned about the use of systematic torture, lengthy pre-trial detention, the shrinking civic space and other related violations as detailed below.

Interference with the system of administration of justice and violation of fair trial rights

In April 2019, the Constitution of Egypt was amended to give the executive branch excessive powers to control the judiciary. Thus, in the amended constitutional articles 185, 189 and 193 the president has powers to appoint the head of judicial bodies including the chief of the Supreme Constitutional Court and the Public Prosecutor. Moreover, in article 200 the executive, and particularly the military, is attributed powers to “protect the constitution and democracy, and safeguard (…) individual rights and freedom”. Categorically, these amendments violate the notion of separation of power known for ensuring checks and balance between the arms of the government. Unless a proper system of checks is put into place, there are huge risks that, working under the military, the judicial arm of the government will not play its role effectively as it ought to do.

The death of Egypt’s former President Mohamed Morsi on Monday 17 June 2019, is yet another shocking event that exposes Egypt’s violation of fair trial rights. Morsi died in a defendant courtroom while attending a session in his trial on espionage charges.[1] Reports say that his death could be linked to negligence by Egyptian authorities to provide him with adequate medical treatment for diabetes, liver and kidney malfunction.[2]  

Enforced disappearances, mass arrest and attacks against activists

Security forces have used enforced disappearances to instil fear among the population in the country. Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented 1,530 cases of enforced disappearances in Egypt between July 2013 and August 2018. We are particularly concerned that enforced disappearances and mass arrests were used against rights activists and political opponents of President El-Sisi. This has occurred in an attempt to wipe out opposition in the country. The victims of such arrests include political activists such as rights defender Wael Abbas (now released); Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon; Haitham Mohamadeen, a lawyer; Amal Fathy; and Shady Abu Zaid, a satirist.[3] Other persons affected include Hoda Abdelmonem, a 60-year-old lawyer and rights defender and Alaa Abdel Fattah (also released, recently). As of 1 November 2018, Ezzat Ghonim, Executive Director of an organisation called Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), was reported missing for several months.[4]

Attacks against the media

The 2018 law regulating the media provides overly broad powers to the Council of the Media to block websites, shut down television channels and other publishing forums without a judicial order to that effect. The law also places personal media accounts under the supervision of the Media Council. It means that one can be arrested for publishing fake news on their personal account, even if the publication was done as satire. The situation is exacerbated in a context where media experts such as journalists are detained. To mention a few, Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) a photo-journalist was jailed for 5 years, Abdullah Elshamy, also a journalist was sentenced to 15 years in absentia simply for conducting his work, he also undertook a hunger strike in prison. Not so long ago, Hisham Gaafar, a journalist and human rights defender, and Director of an NGO that focuses on media studies was also detained. Gaafar was held for 3 years and only released in April 2019. We submit that the clampdown on media has negatively affected the enjoyment of the rights of freedom of expression and access to information. It is our view that if these rights are to flourish in Egypt, the authorities must seek to improve the country’s human rights record by allowing media freedom and by implication the right to access to information. The Egyptian authorities should also refrain from attacking media professionals.

Torture

The 2017 Committee against Torture report on Egypt noted that the practice of torture is “habitual, widespread and deliberate” in Egypt. It adds that torture appears to occur frequently following arbitrary arrests and is often carried out to obtain a confession or to punish and threaten political dissenters. Torture is perpetrated by police officers, military officers, national security officers and prison guards. Prosecutors, judges and prison officials also facilitate this ill practice by failing to curb practices of torture, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment, or to act on complaints.[5]

Pre-trial detention

Egypt’s Criminal Procedural Code[6] entrenches provisions that have overly vague grounds for pre-trial detention. This has led to lengthy detention of journalists and political activists who have been bold enough to criticize the system of governance in the country. Case in point includes the prolonged detention of Egyptian journalist Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa Ali, who was arrested for more than two years without charges. It is suspected that Mahmoud’s punitive pre-trial detention is a message from the government of Egypt to journalists who dare to speak openly against the ruling authorities.

Closing civic space

The 64th Ordinary Session of African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, held in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, was marred with daunting reports about restriction of civic space. Many delegates of civil society organisations operating in the continent faced serious difficulties obtaining entry visas. Participants from Ghana, Malawi, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania were unable to obtain visas to attend the session. Indirect restrictions further included exorbitant fees for hosting side events led by civil society actors and the intentional miscommunication on logistics for events. Registration for the session proved difficult and some participants reported what appeared to be intrusive harassment by security agents. The above scene leads one to think about the challenges faced by rights groups based in Egypt.

Your Excellency, in 1984, Egypt ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), an instrument that compels member states to respect, protect and fulfil all the human rights recognized in the Charter. Moreover, Egypt is a member state and current chair of the AU and expected to lead as a human rights champion in upholding the human rights principles set out in AU’s Constitutive Act. Your Excellency, the on-going violations of human rights in Egypt are not in keeping with the country’s obligations and domestic laws, including the constitution and major international and regional human rights instruments ratified by Egypt. It also violates objectives 3(g) and (h) of the Constitutive Act of the AU which enjoins AU member States to promote popular participation and human and people’s rights, respectively. Recalling the role of the AU as the lead regional institution tasked to better the lives of the people of Africa, and particular the Egyptian citizens, we respectfully ask you to take measures to ensure that the government of Egypt restores respect for the rule of law, ensures ample protection of human rights and aligns its practice to ratified international and regional human rights standards including the Constitutive Act of the AU and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. We respectfully ask you to consider including the situation of human rights in Egypt as a point for discussion in the agenda of the next Summit of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the AU with recommendations for the Summit to deliberate on asking the government of Egypt to:

  1. Take steps to ensure full compliance with international and regional human rights standards;
  2. Respect separation of power by refraining from interfering with the system of administration of justice;
  3. Halt enforced disappearances, investigate and punish perpetrators of enforced disappearance;
  4. Investigate and punish perpetrators and stop attacks against political opponents, peaceful protesters and journalists;
  5. Respect the right to access to information and freedom of the media. In particular, lift the ban against independent press and media;
  6. Investigate and take actions to punish perpetrators of torture and ensure assistance and reparations to the victims;
  7. Address lengthy pre-trial detention and release all detainees who are being held in pre-trial detention without proper charges. and
  8. Promote a culture of dialogue and participation and comply with internationally and regionally recognised standards on the rule of law and civic space.

In addition, we request you to recommend the AU to:

  1. Ask Egypt to report on measures and progress achieved in the promotion and protection of human rights in the country.

Signed by

  1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS);
  2. Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CREAA);
  3. Freedom Initiative;
  4. Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa;
  5. International-Lawyers.org;
  6. MENA Rights Group;
  7. Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network;
  8. Southern African Christian Initiative (SACHI);
  9. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN);
  10. West African Human Rights Defenders; and

 

[1] The Wall Street Journal at https://www.wsj.com/articles/egypt-s-ousted-islamist-president-mohammed-morsi-has-died-11560789900.

[2] Middle East Monitor report available at https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180331-morsis-health-has-deteriorated-severely/amp/.

[3] Human Rights Watch Report - 2018, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/egypt#f95966.

[4] See details at https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/egyptian-security-forces-arrest-19-rights-activists-and-lawyers.

[5] Para. 69 of the UN Committee against Torture report on Egypt, available at file:///C:/Users/mandlate/Downloads/G1717367.pdf (Doc A/72/44).

[6] The UN Working group on Arbitrary Detentions (WGAD) criticized Egypt severely for having vague laws on pre-trial detention. For further details see https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Detention/Opinions/Session80/A_HRC_WGAD_2017_83.pdf.

 

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