By: Rana Taha and Kanzy Mahmoud
A group of human rights organisations released a joint report on Thursday on the status of human rights during President Mohamed Morsi’s tenure, which they say has “deteriorated alarmingly,” accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of being primarily responsible.
Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, Brotherhood lawyer and member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), cited a clear improvement in the status of human rights under Morsi’s tenure. He added that such improvement is originally owed to the 25 January Revolution, saying that “Morsi was just a helping factor”.
A report released by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) commemorating the International Day Against Torture put the number of those arrested during Morsi’s first year in power at 3,462. The report stated that arrest figures during former president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule stopped at 18,000 – an average of 600 arrests per year.
The Front to Defend Egypt’s Protesters (FDEP) released a separate report which put the number at 4,809, adding that 2,651 of the arrests took place in the capital.
Ahmed Atef, member of FDEP, stated that the largest number of arrests under Mubarak occurred during the 2008 Mahalla strike, but added that Morsi surpassed this number with the arrests that occurred during the “protests of the second 25 January Revolution.”
Ahmed Yousri, a member of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC) said that the reason for these figures is not Morsi but rather the lack of change to the police apparatus, blaming Morsi for failing to reform the Ministry of Interior.
Abdel Maqsoud stated that not a single political detainee remains in jail, a statement echoed by Morsi during a national address on Wednesday.
“Any arrests or detentions which take place are governed by the law and follow judiciary decisions,” Abdel Maqsoud said, adding that those arrested during protests were “using molotov cocktails, torching police cars or attacking buildings” and were not detained for expressing their opinions.
“I don’t deny that some people get arrested without due cause during protests,” Abdel Maqsoud said. “Yet there isn’t a single security apparatus in the whole world which doesn’t make mistakes. And the president shouldn’t be held accountable for such mistakes.”
Morsi’s amnesty decree
On 8 October 2012, Morsi issued a decree providing amnesty to all those convicted with misdemeanour charges or attempted-crimes to support the revolution from 25 January 2011 until 30 June 2012, excluding those charged with murder.
The amnesty applied to those who were already sentenced, still facing charges, or awaiting investigations or still standing trials in any court.
The prosecutor general and the military public prosecutor were assigned to publish a list of names of all those pardoned. The names that were not mentioned in the list were allowed to file petitions that would be investigated by a special commission. The commission would have final say over these petitions.
12,000 civilians were tried before military courts from the uprising until August 2011, while an unknown number of civilians received military trials until June 2012, reported Amnesty International. The latter criticised the decree for its failure to include them.
Mahmoud Belal, a human rights lawyer working on several cases where the amnesty should apply, described the decree as “one of Morsi’s biggest frauds.”
He stated that the 379 arrested during the Mohamed Mahmoud street clashes in 2011 were granted amnesty, alongside 14 involved in foreign ministry clashes and three implicated in two other cases that have no relation to the revolution.
In practice, Belal said that all those who were already in prison when the amnesty was issued were not pardoned. He added that though petitions had been filed to the special commission on 7 December 2012, they were not investigated until 18 May 2013 after human rights lawyers filed lawsuits warning the commission, which eventually rejected all petitions without providing reasons.
359 torture cases have been recorded since Morsi became president in June 2012, according to a report by El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
The report cited 217 cases of fatal torture during the last year. Some of the cases included more than one victim; all were tortured during the same incident and thus counted as a single case, said Aida Seif Al-Dawla, psychiatrist at El Nadeem Centre. The totals were all based on media reports.
The centre conducted a separate count for the number of reports of torture it received during the past year, which included 121 torture victims, 19 of whom were female. Saif Al-Dawla qualified, “those are only the victims who could be reached.”
Torture occurred in a variety of settings, the report said, including in homes during arrests, in the streets during arrests, at police stations, at Homeland Security’s headquarters, at Central Security Forces (CSF) camps, in front of the presidential palace during clashes, and at the Brotherhood’s headquarters during clashes.
According to an EOHR report about torture, the last decade of Mubarak’s rule witnessed 357 incidents of torture.
“It’s not about the figures,” Seif Al-Dawla said. “The point is that torture is still widespread and systematic. It still goes without punishment.”
Wiki Thawra, a statistical database recently launched to document the revolution, cited 92 deaths during Morsi’s first year in power which occurred following political protests.
Among the 92 victims, 48 were killed in Port Said, 25 in Cairo, two in Alexandria, two in Mansoura, 12 in Suez, and one each in Ismailia, Beheira and Gharbeya.
The report cited 15 victims who fell during sectarian clashes. Nine were killed during sectarian clashes in Al-Khosous area in April, followed by two more killings which occurred as violence broke out during former victims’ funeral at the Saint Mark’s Cathedral two days later. The latest sectarian strife occurred last week when a mob broke into a home in Abu Musallam, killing four Shi’as.
According to the report, 22 people were killed during clashes between residents and security personnel last year.
Women’s rights during Morsi’s first year were caught between an initiative launched by the presidency to expand women’s rights and the repeated condemnation of the National Council for Women (NCW) by the Shura Council and the Brotherhood.
Shura Council members condemned the United Nation’s declaration on violence against women and called Egypt’s signing of it “apostasy from Islam.” The Egyptian delegation which approved the declaration was led by NCW head Mervat Al-Tallawy, who repeatedly denied that the declaration breached Islamic Shari’a.
On the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, 19 sexual assault cases were reported; all taking place during mass protests in Tahrir Square. Fathy Farid, member of Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, said the police usually ignore such assault cases and sometimes even harass women when they seek to file lawsuits.
Farid believes that “the current culture’s suppression and alienation of women” is the prime driver in the rise of sexual harassment in Egypt. On this point, he cited the presidency’s ignoring demands to criminalise sexual violence, raised by 35 political parties in October 2012; as well as female underrepresentation in parliament and the cabinet.
Sabah Al-Sakkary, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) women’s secretariat, said that after Morsi took office, the status of women highly improved. Al-Sakkary emphasised that Islamist women (veiled or wearing headscarves), were given the opportunity to speak their minds, walk freely on the streets and participate in the political arena for the first time following years of repression under Mubarak’s rule.
“For the first time, women are part of the presidential staff,” said Al-Sakkary, referring to Pakinam Al-Sharkawy, presidential aide for political affairs.
Blasphemy and defamation
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) stated in a report in May that accusations of blasphemy and “insulting the president” are the most common violations of freedom of expression in Egypt.
Ishaq Ibrahim, researcher in Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) following up with freedom of religion and beliefs cases, approximated 16 cases of contempt of religion in 2013 alone.
According to Ibrahim, the cases occurred on four levels, ranging from social ostracism to administrative punishment of an employee, to a formal report being submitted to the prosecutor general. From there, escalation to the fourth level would mean paying a fine or imprisonment until trial.
Those accused of contempt of religion have ranged from Coptic children to activists such as Alber Saber; artists including poet Hisham Al-Ghakh and writer Youssef Ziedan; sheikhs such as Abu Islam who burned the bible; to prominent society figures including Bassem Youssef, host of the satirical news show Al Bernameg; and Naguib Sawiris, founder of the secular Free Egyptians Party.
“The only case of contempt of Christianity is that of Abu Islam,” Ibrahim said. “All other cases are contempt of Islam.”
Ibrahim attributed the deterioration in religious rights to the 2012 constitution, which he said limits religious freedoms. Article 43 of the constitution preserves the rights of citizens to practice Islam, Christianity and Judaism and build houses of worship for those three religions, but fails to preserve religious freedoms for other religions.
Emad Mubarak, director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), said that although the association condemns any verbal messages that call for violence, it is against the charge of contempt of religion.
“Criticising religion [does not] cause harm,” Mubarak said; the problem, he believes, lies with laws criminalising contempt of religion which are exploited to persecute religious minorities, such as Copts.
Defamation charges have thrived during the past year. In a report released by ANHRI in June on freedom of speech, the network emphasised that there have been more cases of insults against the president under Morsi’s first year in power than there have been over the past century.
Cases are sometimes filed by the president’s office and other times by lawyers who are, officially, not related to the presidency. Most defendants are opposition figures, either political activists or media practitioners, with prominent examples including: political activist Ahmed Doma (who was already sentenced to six months in jail); satirical host Bassem Youssef; television presenter Mahmoud Saad and Press Syndicate board member Gamal Fahmy.
The presidency also filed reports against news outlets including; Sout El-Umma, Al-Youm Al-Sabea, Al-Wafd, Al-Fagr, Al Masry Al Youm, and Al-Watan newspapers and Al-Nahar and Al-Kahera Wal Nas TV channels.
Abdel Maqsoud cited the freedom of the press and the media as one of the improvements in human rights under Morsi’s rule, differentiating procedures taken by individuals and those taken by the government. He added that any individual has the right to sue another for libel, regardless of the president’s views, since Article 31 of the constitution prohibits the “insult or contempt” of any citizen.
Reports filed by the presidency regarding insulting the president, he said, were reports filed against “crimes committed and not freedom of expression”. The presidency officially withdrew all complaints it filed against journalists and media figures in May.
Another controversial cornerstone in the status of human rights is the law governing civil society organisations known as the NGO law. As Law 84 of 2002 was notorious for allowing extensive state control over civil society organisations, legislative authorities have been keen on replacing it with a new law.
After a draft by the FJP was shot down by domestic as well as international critics for restricting civil societies’ work, the presidency proposed a new draft in late May.
According to Presidential spokesperson Omar Amer, the new draft grants civil organisations legal status upon notification of their establishment. He added that the law minimises the powers of administrative and executive authorities over the activities of civil organisations, exempts them from taxes, and allows national funding from Egyptians residing domestically and abroad.
Al-Sharkawy stated that the new law seeks to find a balance between the organisations’ freedom and the preservation of national security and sovereignty.
Khaled Al-Qazzaz, the president’s secretary for foreign affairs, said that the new draft would remove several restrictions present in earlier drafts, such as the coordination committee’s authority to stall an activity or withhold funding.
The law’s latest version was criticised by a coalition of 40 domestic civil society groups who accused the Brotherhood of laying the groundwork to form a new police state by imposing restrictions on NGO functions and operations. On an international level, the US state department and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton both criticised the law, fearing it was “too restrictive”.
Heba Morayef, Human Right Watch’s (HRW) Egypt director, stated that the new draft continues to allow authorities to interfere in NGO work, citing Article 18 of the draft, which gives the government the right to reject NGOs’ internal decisions and activities and block them.
Another concern revolved around the government’s control over NGO funding, with Article 14 necessitating that NGOs notify the government before any fundraising. The acceptance of foreign funds would meanwhile be overseen by a coordinating committee made up of government officials, civil society representatives, and possibly security and intelligence agencies.
The committee would have not only the right to reject an international NGO’s application for registration without the need for justification, HRW said, but to prevent such organisations from “activities conducted by political parties or those that violate national sovereignty”.