Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November 2014, 15:45 GMT

Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Egypt

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Egypt, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8b28.html [accessed 26 November 2014]
Comments This report covers the events of 1996
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human Rights Developments

Human rights conditions continued to deteriorate in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world and recipient of the second largest annual U.S. aid package, after Israel. Restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and the use of military courts to prosecute nonviolent civilians, remained major issues in 1996. Security forces operated with impunity, and armed Islamist militants deliberately killed civilians, targeting in particular Egyptian Christians in southern villages and foreigners in Cairo. The emergency law, continuously in force since 1981, was scheduled to remain in effect until May 1997.

On November 23, 1995, the Supreme Military Court sentenced fifty-four prominent Muslim Brothers to prison terms ranging from three to five years with hard labor. They included former members of parliament, university professors, and others who had intended to run as independents in the November 29 parliamentary election. They had been charged with membership in a proscribed organization (the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned since 1954), but had not been shown either to have used or advocated violence. The proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards, including the right to appeal to a higher tribunal. The prosecution of these nonviolent Islamists was a blatant move by the state to disenfranchise members of the country's largest political opposition movement and thwart its participation in electoral politics.

The two-round election on November 29 and December 6, 1995, for 444 parliamentary seats, produced an overwhelming victory for President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. But the results were clouded by violence, arbitrary arrests of supporters of opposition party and independent candidates, and massive irregularities at the polls, all of which were documented by Egyptian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which mounted an unprecedented election-monitoring effort. Twenty-six people lost their lives in the violence surrounding the first round of the voting, the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA) reported, including five in Kafr al-Sheikh when security forces used force to disperse citizens who protested vote rigging and other fraudulent practices.

In a letter published by the Washington Post on December 26, 1995, the Egyptian ambassador to the U.S., Ahmed Maher El Sayed, stated that "the elections were conducted freely" and that "no step backward has been taken." But Court of Cassation judges saw it differently; as of October 2, they had nullified the election results for seats in 200 constituencies in response to legal challenges from losing candidates, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) reported.

The unfair election process spurred the formation of the Wasat (Center) party, whose founding members were, in large part, younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood. One of the party's founders, Abu al-'Ala Madi, said in January that the party endorsed "action through the peaceful, democratic approach" and were "convinced of the need for involvement, pluralism, and dialogue." In January, Madi submitted the party's application for legal status to the Party Affairs Committee, the government-appointed body that licenses political parties. It was widely believed that Madi's prominence as a leading force behind the new party was the reason for his arrest in April and his imprisonment until August, when he was acquitted by a military court (see below). In May, the party's application for legal status was denied. The founders immediately filed an appeal, but told Human Rights Watch they did not expect the case to be heard before December 1996. Members of political groups were barred from engaging in political activity prior to obtaining a license; violators faced up to five years in prison if convicted, pursuant to December 1992 amendments to the 1977 Political Parties Law. The Party Affairs Committee had systematically denied licenses to new political groups since the law came into effect in 1977. "Since the law was issued in 1977, no single political party has been formed through the approval of the committee. Instead, a court decision has always been required to legitimize any political party," EOHR noted in a July 1993 report.

At the same time that peaceful Islamist activists were imprisoned or otherwise blocked from participation in politics, armed militants carried out deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians. Egyptian Christians in southern Egypt, including children, bore the brunt of this violence. These killings were apparently carried out by members of the military wing of the Islamic Group but, as in similar killings in past years, there were no claims of responsibility following any of the incidents. On April 18, eighteen Greek tourists were killed outside a Cairo hotel by four gunmen. Two days later, the Islamic Group claimed responsibility, stating that Israeli tourists had been the intended targets "because they often stay in this hotel."

The state continued to execute suspected Islamist militants who were sentenced to death by military courts for "terrorism" offenses that included but were not limited to murder. Six men were executed on June 2, bringing the number of executions to fifty-four since the trials of civilians in military courts began in late 1992. In an apparent paradox, the government continued to prosecute Muslim Brothers in military courts for peaceful political association, while it tried some militant Islamists accused of violent offenses in the state security court, where civilian judges presided. The explanation that Egyptian lawyers have offered for this dual justice system is that authorities have resorted to military courts in cases where the evidence was too weak to withstand the scrutiny of civilian judges.

In April, thirteen more Muslim Brothers were arrested, including university professors, former members of parliament, elected officers of professional associations and university faculty clubs, and candidates for parliament in 1995. Some of them also were founders or supporters of the Wasat Party, such as Abu al-'Ala Madi. The proceedings began in the civilian judiciary, but on May 11 the case was transferred to the military court by presidential decree. The defendants were charged with "running, in violation of the law, an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood, the aim of which is to advocate undermining the constitution and the laws," and "recruiting new elements with the aim of inciting the masses against the present government." No evidence was presented during the trial that the defendants had engaged in violence or the planning of violence. On August 15, the court sentenced seven of the defendants to three years in prison, including Mahmoud ‘Ali Abu Riyyah and former member of parliament Hassan Judah (both in their seventies and in poor health), issued a one-year suspended sentence to ‘Abd al-Azim ‘Abd al-Majid al-Maghribi (a bedridden merchant also in his seventies), and acquitted five, including Abu al-'Ala Madi and his Wasat party colleagues.

Prison conditions remained abysmal, particularly in newly opened high-security facilities where suspected Islamist militants were held in almost complete isolation from the outside world. EOHR documented the gross neglect, physical abuse and inadequate medical care suffered by 4,000 inmates at Fayyoum (opened in 1995), and by another 300 prisoners at Aqrab (opened in 1993), where a ban by the interior minister on visits by lawyers and family members had remained in effect since December 20, 1993, despite successive court rulings against such bans. Both prisons were controlled by State Security Investigation (SSI), the elite internal security arm of the Interior Ministry. On June 17, the commander of Aqrab, accompanied by thirty soldiers, carried out a search of the inmates' cells. When it was discovered that medical student Gamal Osman had a watch and pocket radio, he and the nineteen other inmates in his section "were ordered out of their cells, stripped...of all their clothes, and were flogged [on] their backs, feet and buttocks," EOHR reported in September. When a pen was found on Ali Naser in the search of another section of the prison the same day, he and his seventy-nine cellmates were similarly punished.

There continued to be no transparency in official investigations of suspicious deaths in SSI custody and, as a result, SSI torturers enjoyed impunity. The case of Islamist defense lawyer Abdel Harith Madani, who died in SSI custody in April 1994 presumably under torture, was all but forgotten. The head of the human rights unit in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry told Amnesty International (AI) delegates in November 1995 that the investigation of Madani's death was continuing, although AI noted that it was unable to obtain from the ministry "details as to the methods and procedures" used to investigate deaths in custody.

The government's extreme sensitivity about deaths in custody extended to cases involving the police. This was evidenced by the banning of a story in the July 14-20 issue of the weekly Middle East Times (Cairo) about a Cairo woman who learned on June 18 that her husband had been hospitalized after being tortured at a police station in Manshiyet Nasr. She reportedly visited him at ‘Ain Shams hospital the next day, before he died from what doctors said was a brain hemorrhage. The article cited details of four other cases in the same week in which suspects had been brutalized at the same police station and suffered injuries. All four victims had filed complaints, but reportedly the police obstructed prosecutors' investigations. A few weeks after this story was banned, Ahmed Higazi, a suspected Islamist militant, died in custody at SSI headquarters in Cairo.

In a decision that generated international condemnation, the Court of Cassation on August 5 upheld the June 1995 ruling of the Cairo Court of Appeals that declared Cairo University professor Dr. Nasr Abu Zeid an apostate and, on this basis, ordered that he be separated from his Muslim wife, university professor Dr. Ibtihal Yunis. EOHR noted that the ruling was "the first of its kind in the modern history of Egypt's judiciary, where a man and his wife are separated against their will because of the religious views and interpretations expressed by one of them." One of the reasons that the decision generated apprehension in Egypt was because of the dangerous precedent that it set: Egypt's highest appeals court had affirmed the legal power of a civil court judge to declare a Muslim intellectual an apostate solely on the basis of his scholarly writings. Sheikh Yousef al-Badri, who took a lead in initiating the legal action against Abu Zeid in 1993, expressed satisfaction with the August 5 decision: "No one will even dare to think about harming Islam again...we have stopped an enemy of Islam from poking fun at our religion."

In yet another legal twist in this complex case, the Court of Urgent Cases in Giza ruled on September 25 in favor of a motion submitted by Dr. Abu Zeid's lawyers to suspend implementation of the appeal court's June 1995 order that the couple separate. Islamist lawyers responded with pledges to appeal the stay. The Giza court's decision left untouched the ruling that Dr. Abu Zeid was an apostate. Lawyers for the couple were preparing further legal challenges as this report went to press.

Another freedom of expression battle raged in 1996 as pro-government and opposition journalists united in efforts for the repeal of Law No. 93 of 1995, which mandated preventive detention and imprisonment for vaguely worded offenses such as "publishing false or biased rumors, news and statements or disconcerting propaganda" if such material "offends social peace, arouses panic amongst people, harms public interest, or shows contempt for state institutions or officials." Scores of journalists had been investigated and prosecuted under this law, particularly for defamation and slander. The much awaited replacement law, drafted in 1996, aroused additional criticism; it mandated prison terms of up to five years for "inciting hatred of the regime" and one year for publication of material that "insulted the president of the republic." On June 15, President Mubarak bowed to the mounting pressure and by decree removed the penalties specified in Law No. 93 from the penal code. The new press law, approved by parliament on June 18, accommodated many of the journalists' concerns but limited conditions under which new newspapers could be established and criminalized expression deemed insulting to the president.

The Right to Monitor

The Egyptian human rights movement was one of the most dynamic and sophisticated in the Arab world. Despite the increasing international recognition of Egyptian human rights organizations, the government continued to treat them with hostility and has denied official legal status to EOHR, the oldest independent rights groups in Egypt. In an interview with the Middle East Times on May 27, President Mubarak stated that rights groups "interfere in the internal affairs of the country....They are just defending terrorists and criminals. Do they defend the interests of the innocent man on the street who has been injured by violence?" Interior Minister Hassan el-Alfi, in an interview in Akhbar al-Yom (Cairo) on June 15, claimed that the groups "are used by many agencies to influence societies and peoples. They all work for political purposes which are no secret to anyone."

Indeed, SSI officers from Mr. el-Alfi's ministry harassed Egyptian human rights activists throughout the year and directly interfered with their organizations' work. In July, six SSI officers arrived after midnight at the home of one human rights worker and questioned him about a complaint that his group had sent to the minister of interior. Another activist was summoned to SSI's Cairo headquarters earlier in the year and questioned for two hours by a senior officer about his organization's publications.

At least one long-established organization was forced to negotiate with SSI for permission to hold human rights training courses, and throughout 1996 it was prohibited from holding seminars and workshops in major Egyptian cities. Some of the local NGOs invited to training sessions were summoned by SSI and instructed not to attend. At one of these events, participants from fifty local NGOs were expected. The night before, according to the organization's director, "the place was surrounded by SSI guards, and an SSI officer told me at midnight, ‘No way. We'll even prevent you by force.' He told the hotel manager to remove our posters."

SSI officers also singled out prominent Egyptians and pressured them to remain publicly silent about issues such as the Wasat Party and the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. One was threatened by an officer who criticized an article that he had written in an Egyptian newspaper. In another incident, the person involved told us that he received a "friendly visit" from a high-ranking officer, who wanted to know what he had said in meetings with international human rights organizations and journalists. Fear prevented these people from publicly disclosing and protesting this intimidation, and inhibited others from coming forward with accounts of direct and indirect pressure.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The annual report of the U.N. Committee against Torture, issued in July, included a summary of the results of the committee's confidential procedure on Egypt, a three-year inquiry that concluded in November 1994 and involved extensive contact between the committee and Egyptian officials. The committee's conclusion, which was adopted by consensus in May, was that "torture is systematically practiced by the security forces in Egypt, in particular by [SSI], since in spite of the denials of the Government, the allegations of torture submitted by reliable non-governmental organizations consistently indicate that reported cases of torture are seen to be habitual, widespread and deliberate in at least a considerable part of the country." The committee also found that "judicial remedies are often a slow process leading to the impunity of the perpetrators of torture," and noted "with concern that no investigation has ever been made and no legal action been brought against members of [SSI] since the entry into force of the Convention [against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment] for Egypt in June 1987." The committee noted that the Egyptian government "did not avail itself of the opportunity it had been offered to clarify the situation" by accepting a visit to Egypt by the committee members participating in the inquiry.

The committee reported the attempt by Egyptian authorities to prevent the public release of its findings, and quoted from an extraordinary letter it had received from the government, which stated that disclosure of the findings "might be interpreted as signifying support for terrorist groups and would encourage the latter to proceed with their terrorist schemes and to defend their criminal members who engage in acts of terrorism by resorting to false accusations of torture. In other words, it might ultimately be interpreted as signifying that the committee is indirectly encouraging terrorist groups not only in Egypt but worldwide."

United States

Egypt remained a key U.S. regional military ally and a reliable partner in the U.S.-led Arab-Israeli peace process. U.S. aid to Egypt included $1.3 billion from the Foreign Military Financing Program and $815 million in Economic Support Funds. As in past years, there was no evidence that the Clinton administration used the significant leverage that this aid provided to insist that the government take specific steps to improve its human rights performance. Instead, U.S. senior officials signaled in public remarks that Egypt's position as an ally was secure, reinforcing the long-standing impression that public criticism of Egypt's human rights record remained off-limits, with the sole exception of the accurate and damning assessments in the yearly State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

The U.S.-Egyptian Partnership for Economic Growth and Development, an initiative launched in 1994 by Vice President Al Gore to support privatization of Egypt's economy, has as one of its goals the building of "mutually beneficial economic and commercial ties between the two countries." In a statement on June 12 to the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, Secretary Pelletreau lauded President Mubarak's "personal commitment to accelerate economic reform and liberalization," but was silent on political reform.

At a joint press conference with President Mubarak in Washington on July 30, President Clinton reaffirmed "the close partnership between the United States and Egypt." Secretary Pelletreau told the House Committee on International Relations on September 25 that during Mr. Mubarak's visit there was discussion of "the need for Egypt to maintain momentum in its creation of a business environment favorable to investment, including the implementation of policies to spur privatization, liberalize trade, develop a unified commercial code, create a dispute settlement process, and protect intellectual property rights." Regrettably, Secretary Pelletreau did not list human rights as a factor that also enhance the investment environment, nor was he able to report that torture and other abuses in Egypt had been on the agenda of the July discussions.

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