CAIRO: Rights groups have roundly condemned the renewal of Egypt’s state of emergency, approved in a parliamentary vote Tuesday.
“By renewing the state of emergency, the Egyptian authorities have given their security forces, especially the State Security Investigations (SSI) officers, carte blanche to continue to use repressive emergency powers that have clearly led to numerous abuses,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, said in a statement issued Tuesday.
Egypt’s state of emergency has been in force, continuously, since 1981. While the government says that the exceptional powers granted to security forces under the law are only used in terrorism and narcotics offences, rights group assert that they are routinely used to suppress political dissent.
Amnesty expresses concern that the renewal comes as Egypt prepares for elections in June saying, “The authorities are notorious for relying on the emergency powers to lock up their opponents.” In its statement Human Rights Watch says that “security officials continue to use the emergency law to detain people in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism.”
Under the emergency law security forces are granted exceptional powers of arrest and detention as well as the ability to impose restrictions on freedom of assembly.
Constitutional safeguards concerning house searches and monitoring of communications are suspended under the law, which also empowers the President of the Republic to transfer ordinary crimes for trial in exceptional Emergency State Security Courts, which rights groups say lack the basic guarantees of a fair trial.
The decree renewing the state of emergency restricts the special powers available to security forces under the emergency law. The government touted this as changes which “transform the government’s political commitment to limit the use of the emergency law.”
The decree formally restricts use of emergency law powers to terrorism and narcotics trafficking offences — despite the fact that during a review of Egypt’s human rights record in February, the Egyptian government told the United Nations Human Rights Council that, “when issuing and extending the … state of emergency, the political authorities have always pledged to refrain from using their emergency powers to deal with terrorism and drugs offences, and they have kept their pledge.”
Security forces will no longer be able to exercise powers to monitor communication and publications, censor broadcasts or order the closure of publishing houses. They will also be denied the right to use powers conferred on them under the law to confiscate property, regulate the hours of operation of commercial activities and isolate and evacuate certain areas.
Security forces retain their right to arrest and detain individuals suspected of being involved in crimes of terrorism and narcotics trafficking, search people or places suspected of involvement in such crimes and cancel licenses to bear arms or own explosive materials.
The government heralded the changes as a “transitional step towards the lifting of the state of emergency and the adoption of a counter-terrorism law” in a press statement issued Tuesday.
HRW, however, points out that while the power to monitor communications may no longer be available to security forces under the emergency law, the “2007 amendments to article 179 of the constitution already gave [the government] the power to monitor communications outside of the emergency law and without judicial warrant in terrorism-designated cases”.
President Hosni Mubarak announced the government’s intention to end the state of emergency and replace it with a counter-terrorism law during his 2005 presidential campaign.
Amendments made to the Constitution in 2007 provided for the passing of a new counter-terrorism law and allows suspension of constitutional safeguards related to arrest and detention, house and body searches and privacy of communications.
Aida Seif El-Dawla, a psychiatrist with the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence says that there is “no hope” that security forces will respect the provisions of the decree restricting the powers available to them, in practice.
Seif El-Dawla points to the “evidence that it will not be respected in practice,” such as the police violence used against demonstrators on April 6 and 13, 2010, and the detention of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and students involved in political activity on campus.
The Nadeem psychiatrist is equally dismissive of the government’s justifications for renewing the state of emergency.
In a briefing issued Tuesday, the government draws parallels between the decision to renew the state of emergency because of a continuing terrorist threat to Egypt and US President Barack Obama’s pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. “Though President Obama signed an executive order to close the facility by the end of 2009, the administration has been unable to do so due to the complexity of the two challenges faced by the Administration regarding this matter: What to do with dangerous detainees?, [sic] and Where to try them?
Seif El-Dawla describes the fact that the Guantanamo Bay facility is still in operation as “no excuse” saying, “It would be more honest for the Egyptian government to say we are collaborating with the US in its war on terror”.
Claims of a terrorist threat to Egypt are “simply a lie”, Seif El-Dawla says, adding, “The briefing paper refers to ‘thousands’ of terrorism victims, which is not the case.”
As evidence of a threat of terrorism, the government referred to the recent conviction of men found guilty in a state security court of belonging to a Hezbollah cell planning to stage terrorist acts in Egypt. In response, Seif El-Dawla said, “The extent of torture in that case … throws lots of shadows on the sentences. I think that [the case was] made precisely to be used as a pretext for the need of a state of emergency and not the other way around”.
Seif El-Dawla, Amnesty International and HRW all point out that the “safeguards” which supposedly protect against abuse of the emergency law do not work in practice.
“The government claims that the emergency law is subject to judicial review,” HRW says.
“In fact, the government frequently disregards court orders to release detainees held under the emergency law, and the Interior Ministry is empowered under the law to renew detention orders on its own authority”.