Rights groups call on gov't to keep promise to free emergency law detainees

Sarah Carr
5 Min Read

CAIRO: The Egyptian government must release hundreds of detainees being held in administrative detention, in compliance with recent amendments to THE emergency law, a coalition of 12 rights groups said on Tuesday.

"The Egyptian government is under an obligation to release all administrative detainees or charge them with a cognizable criminal offense and provide them with a fair trial," Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says in the statement.

"Moreover, international human rights treaties to which Egypt is a state party clearly place the onus on the Egyptian government, on its own initiative, to immediately release all detainees in respect of whom it has repealed the legal provisions authorizing their detention."

The rights groups say that high-level interior ministry officials had pledged in May that the authorities would start freeing prisoners on June 1, 2010, and that the releases would be complete by the end of the month.

According to unconfirmed government reports, less than 500 people have been released so far, and a number of high-profile political detainees remain in prison.

The officials told Human Rights Watch that, “the releases would occur either through the courts or at the initiative of the ministry after reviewing the basis of detention and determining that the detainee was not connected to terrorism or drugs.”

On May 11, 2010 President Hosni Mubarak issued a decree limiting the application of emergency powers to terrorism and narcotics offences.

Prior to the passing of the decree, the government had always claimed that emergency law powers were only used in narcotics and terrorism cases, a claim countered by rights groups. They say that the extensive powers given to security bodies under the emergency law are used indiscriminately and systematically — giving rise to doubt about whether the May changes to the scope of emergency law powers would be respected in practice.

“While the government has been claiming for years that it applies the emergency law only in drug trafficking and terrorism cases, the interior minister has routinely approved new detention orders on a variety of other grounds,” the statement reads.

“People have been detained because of their political views or on suspicion of links to networks aiding illegal migration abroad or in connection with incidents of sectarian violence, and at times for their religious beliefs. State Security Investigations (SSI) officials also have routinely ignored final court orders to free emergency law detainees in their custody, giving rise to doubt that the government will carry out its new pledge,” the statement continues.

It is estimated that there are currently between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals being held in long-term detention without charge or trial. The government has not provided official figures about the exact number of detainees.

On May 11, 2010 People’s Assembly speaker Fathy Sorour said that “every detainee whose detention is not related to terrorism and drugs” would be freed on June 1, 2010.

On June 11, 2010 Minister of Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Mufid Shehab told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that some 453 detainees had been released.

Gamal Eid of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) told Daily News Egypt at the beginning of June, however, that the individuals ANHRI lawyers saw released from the Borg El-Arab prison were “ordinary people” and did not include publicly known political figures.

The coalition statement lists the cases of individuals detained under emergency law powers because of opinions, membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, religious beliefs or because of their suspected involvement in aiding illegal migration abroad.

“The government should show that its promise to limit the scope of the emergency law is not just empty words and immediately begin to free everyone being held for reasons other than terrorism or drugs,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, is quoted as saying in the statement.

“The world is watching.”


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Sarah Carr is a British-Egyptian journalist in Cairo. She blogs at www.inanities.org.
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