Different state bodies continue to be reluctant to discuss human rights issues, despite the deterioration of conditions, especially in political and civil rights.
A narrow public sphere for discussions about human rights violations has been further enforced by a crackdown on civil society. Currently, the two legitimate entities that still enjoy the luxury of addressing human rights are the state-funded National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and parliament’s Human Rights Committee.
While the regime discredited all types of reports raising questions on human rights issued by both local and foreign organisations, both the parliamentary committee and the NCHR have also been subject to opposition by representatives of the state and their supporters.
State officials have consistently denied any allegations of violations. On top of the list comes the Ministry of Interior, which takes no responsibility for any claims related to the ill treatment of prisoners, torture practices, extended remand periods, and alleged enforced disappearances or unlawful detentions.
Statements of denial were renewed following a Tuesday meeting held between members of parliament from the Human Rights Committee and representatives from the ministries of interior and justice. The meeting discussed NCHR’s most recent annual report issued in July.
“Ministry officials provided their opinions and explanations regarding several points we mention in the report,” commented NCHR member Nevine Mossaad, who attended the meeting. However, officials’ statements as reported in local media contained criticism of the report.
For instance, Ashraf Hegazy, who represented the Justice Ministry, was quoted as saying that NCHR’s report was “contradicting and inaccurate, giving the wrong impression that Egypt doesn’t include human rights among its priority issues.”
His discontent came regarding the part of the NCHR report on the judiciary, as he rejected accusations of the judicial institution being politicised. The report stated that there were violations to the right to fair trial, expanding military trials for civilians, and death sentences issued by several terrorist divisions of criminal courts.
It further stated that “prosecution authorities respond to lawsuits filed against intellectuals and politicians despite the weakness of the claims,” considering it among the “tools of pressure used against political opponents and a violation of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and opinion”.
Moreover, the report said that the judiciary was subject to interference by the executive authority, citing the dismissal of ministers by presidential orders. It also mentioned the Justice Ministry’s approach in addressing an anti-torture draft bill on which two judges worked on in workshops with the human rights community, and were later summoned for investigations for doing so.
According to Mossaad, the issue of the death penalty was brought to discussion. “The Justice Ministry representative said that most verdicts are issued in absentia, automatically leading to a retrial. He said that a judge must therefore issue the strictest penalty to allow for the next judge to give a lesser penalty,” Mossaad said in comments to Daily News Egypt Tuesday.
Naturally, the Ministry of Interior also spoke up against NCHR’s report. Generally, the ministry has denied allegations of torture in detention facilities, enforced disappearances, and the degrading living conditions in prisons.
Two ministry representatives attended the meeting: Aly Abdel Mawla, deputy minister for legal affairs, and Salah El-Din Fouad, deputy minister of human rights. Abdel Mawla was quoted by local media stating that claims of enforced disappearances are promoted by the “Muslim Brotherhood which work against the state and society”.
NCHR’s report stated that detainees are overcrowding prisons, police stations, and security directorates amidst a lack of medication, healthcare, and food, with no space for sleep, rest, or other activities.
There have been hundreds of complaints documented by NGOs addressing detention in solitary confinement and the harassment of young political activists, in addition to increased pretrial detention periods.
“The Interior Ministry representatives denied the practice of torture. They raised questions about the sources we used in the report, claiming they were motivated by a desire to create controversy. At the end, as a human rights entity, we have to state our opinion and listen to theirs,” said Mossaad.
On the other hand, NCHR’s leading member Nasser Amin had a more vigilant opinion on the state’s approach towards human rights issues. “It all highlights that the state is being managed by its security apparatus,” he told Daily News Egypt.
“As a result, it deals with those entities, even if they are part of the state, aggressively in an attempt to pressure them, which perfectly suits the situation of security’s control over the scene,” Amin added.
These discussions come as MP Anwar Sadat, who heads the parliamentary committee, has been facing harassment inside the House of Representatives, to the extent of being censored by parliamentary speaker Ali Abdul Aal while attempting to express his point of view on the pensions’ increase for military personnel.
“When I asked the Defence Ministry representatives about whether a retired army officer who obtained a civil leading job should be entitled to a military pension, I was surprised to find that Abdul Aal insinuated I was insulting the military institution,” Sadat said in an August interview with privately-owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Sadat also admitted that Abdul Aal threatened to suspend the activities of the Human Rights Committee and to have him removed from his position by calling for new committee elections. He asserted that Abdul Aal has obstructed the work of the committee already by not responding to its requests to visit prisons and other public facilities in order to assess services provided to citizens.
At the end, he stated that “it feels like the committee is here to talk only nobody hears us, hands tied down,” he stated. Like many human rights advocates, Sadat also claimed to have been subject to a distortion campaign accusing him of illicitly receiving foreign funds and manipulating the parliamentary committee to serve his “own interests”.
According to Amin, Sadat is particularly targeted as part of the Human Rights Committee amid MPs’ lack of understanding of international human rights standards and their insistence on dealing with human rights reports as a threat to national security.
Therefore, not only have government speakers been keen on denying allegations or the crackdown on freedom of expression, but also members of parliament have taken the same approach while addressing reports.
This was seen in the responses to international inquiries regarding the murder case of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, and the reaction to the Italian Senate’s decision to halt the supply of spare parts of warplanes to Egypt.
“The Italian parliament took this step as Egypt faces a war against terrorism. It is unnecessary in light of the cooperation and communication between the two countries’ judicial authorities in the Regeni case,” Abdul Aal had said in a statement.
On a final note, it remains unclear whether NCHR’s report reached the presidency as it is supposed to, but NCHR’s president, Mohamed Fayeq, has not sat with President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi this year, raising more concerns on the state’s plans to respond to the report.