Egypt Where Impunity Is Entrenched and Accountability Is Absent

Press Release

31 December 2014

Introduction: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights today said Egypt’s worst human rights crisis in decades has continued unabated in 2014 with massive and systematic violations of basic rights and freedoms despite starting the year with a promising new constitution. In an end-of-year statement, EIPR lamented that despite its shortcomings, the new constitution had established important new protections for citizens against oppression and injustice. But as the year progressed, most of the protections and safeguards enshrined in the constitution were ignored while some were flagrantly violated by the government especially in terms of ensuring due process during trials, the right to peaceful assembly, the right to freedom of association, freedom of expression, right to social justice, down to the very basic right to life.

The trespasses of state agents against people’s rights are continuing on the backdrop of a very real terrorist threat in the Sinai, which often spreads to other parts of the country, further emphasizing a culture of fear. In that regard, the government has elected to deal with the problem as a waiver to constitutional and international obligations to exercise discretion and uphold human rights even in the most dire of circumstances. EIPR believes that violating human rights not only undermines rule of law and allows law enforcement agencies to abuse their powers but it also fails to counter terrorism and even indirectly fuels it as thousands of people lose faith in state institutions and take the law into their own hands.

EIPR has investigated and highlighted serious threats to the rights of Egyptians in 2014 in various areas including criminal justice, economic and social justice and civil liberties.

Criminal Justice: Impunity Entrenched

2014 bears witness to a steadfast deterioration in upholding human rights guarantees within the criminal justice system, which left thousands of victims of gross human rights violations outside the protection of the law while giving carte blanche to the law enforcement establishment to act above the law without any fear of accountability.

Police violence in the context of demonstrations and other political violence continued unabated, albeit on a lower scale than in 2013, as a result of the nearly total ban of anti-government protests. Protests that took place in 2014 including in university campuses were forcibly dispersed by the police using excessive, and at times unwarranted, lethal force. Abuse of power at the hands of the police manifesting itself in the unlawful use of force and firearms as well as torture or other ill-treatment did not only target perceived political dissidents, but also routinely took place in the context of regular law enforcement operations and against suspects in common-law cases. The police were quick to use force and firearms without any respect to the principles of necessity and proportionality, and to resort to live ammunition when it was not absolutely necessary to prevent death or serious injury. Their actions resulted in deaths and injuries including of bystanders. For instance, EIPR documented an incident in Kafr al-Dawar on June 13, 2014, when police, while carrying-out an arrest, fired randomly and recklessly, injured two women standing at their windows. One of the victims sustained a serious injury to her eye and was hospitalized.

Violent attacks by militants mainly targeting army and police personnel, buildings, checkpoints, and vehicles took the lives of 308 members of the security forces according to media reports scanned by EIPR, and have been used as a justification to trample on rights. EIPR documented arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearance, severe torture, and unfair trials by military courts of individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activities. The population of North Sinai has been particularly affected with evictions and reports of collective punishment, arbitrary arrests, extra-judicial executions and other unlawful killings. The government has effectively stifled independent reporting from the region.

Such abuses continue in a climate of near total impunity, as the government fails to conduct adequate and impartial investigations and bring those responsible to account emboldening security forces to commit further abuses. The findings of the Fact-Finding Committee into the events of June 30, established by interim President Adly Mansour, fell short of expectations in failing to establish the truth and to call for the necessary legal and institutional reforms to ensure non-repetition. Its findings absolving security forces of serious misconduct contradicted EIPR's own investigations into the forced dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in and other incidents of political violence, which engulfed Egypt in the summer of 2013- EIPR’s investigations were published and shared with the Fact-Finding Committee in June.

All these violations occurred against the backdrop of an alarmingly selective justice system in Egypt, which appears more intent on settling political scores and punishing dissent than establishing justice. Mass arrests which started since July 3, 2013, when former President Mohammed Morsi was forcibly removed following massive protests, have continued, amid the government's refusal to release statistics on the number of political prisoners with estimates ranging between 22,000 by the Associated Press news service quoting government sources to some 41,000 by WikiThawra- an independent initiative. Thousands of political dissidents were indicted, kept in pretrial detention for lengthy periods without any real opportunity to challenge the legality of their incarceration and even convicted based on flimsy evidence with little effort to establish individual criminal responsibility. Among those unjustly locked-up is EIPR's transitional justice officer, Yara Sallam, who was handed down a two year imprisonment sentence for allegedly breeching the draconian and constitutionally-challenged protest law, despite the absence of any credible evidence against her.

On the other hand, investigations into police and other officials' abuse are rarely conducted, let alone result in prosecutions or convictions. A case in point is the dismissal of the criminal charges against deposed president Hosni Mubarak and the acquittal of his Minister of Interior Habib ElAdly, and six of the latter's aides, of any responsibility of killing protesters during the 25 January Revolution.

The public prosecution has been complicit in allowing perpetrators to walk free while locking up dissidents, as shown in EIPR's study highlighting the needed policy and legal reform to ensure the independence and impartiality of the prosecution. Courts also have consistently applied different standards for proving crimes, depending on whether defendants were law enforcement officials or regular citizens. For instance, in the trial known to the media as the Matay case, the judge handed down 37 death sentences and 491 life imprisonments on charges of killing a single police officer on August 14, 2013. The same judge sought to hand down 683 death sentences for killing another police officer in Adwa. The court argued that criminal intent to kill any member of the police forces and presence at the crime scene presented sufficient evidence to convict them of murder or attempted murder. Simultaneously, courts have consistently acquitted police officers present at the scenes of protester killings, citing lack of evidence linking individual officers to protester deaths or arguing self-defense.

In another alarming development, a law expanding the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians was passed in October. Since, hundreds of defendants have been referred to military courts retroactively.

Arbitrary arrests, the misuse of pretrial detention to repress dissent, and mass convictions on flimsy evidence have only exacerbated the dire and overcrowded prison conditions in Egypt. Torture, inhumane treatment and worsening living conditions are all recurring themes in testimonies collected by EIPR, prompting hunger strikes across Egyptian prisons. Of particular concern are serious indications that show an alarming escalation in the excessive use of force, brutality, beatings, verbal abuse and other forms of cruel and degrading treatment or punishment for prisoners by law enforcement officials in a climate of entrenched impunity. EIPR also documented instances of collective abuse against groups of political prisoners including at Wadi al-Natroun and Qanater prisons and the Koum al-Dikka juvenile facility. Former prisoners, relatives and lawyers complain of the authorities’ failure to meet the basic needs of prison inmates in regards to nutrition, hygiene, healthcare and contact with the outside world. A study published by EIPR in July pointed out the appalling state of medical services in Egyptian prisons, leading to preventable deaths. More than 100 deaths in custody cases have been reported in the media and by human rights groups in 2014, mainly as a result of torture, medical negligence, and inhumane and unhygienic detention conditions. Worsening prison conditions are facilitated by the inadequate legal framework governing detention and the consistent denial of access to prisons to independent monitors including NGOs. Despite statements by the Ministry of Interior welcoming visits by civil society, requests submitted by EIPR and other independent NGOs in 2014 were rejected or ignored. 

Economic and social justice: Ambiguous policies, a flood of laws and legislation, and unaccountable failure

The year 2014 has seen radical changes in some of the social justice issues, whose repercussions are expected to last for long years influencing broad segments of the Egyptian society. The lack of transparency seems to be a common factor in most of the issues raised during 2014. The government failed to open communication and discussion channels with the groups affected by controversial economic decisions, or with civil society organizations. Several laws were enacted and decisions taken in the absence of an elected parliament. Moreover, there was no openness or accountability for the blunders related to health, housing, and other social justice issues, which could lead to further erosion of confidence in state institutions.

These drawbacks come in stark contradiction with the new Constitution issued early in 2014, which asserted some social and economic rights. The new Constitution addressed bridging the gap between incomes, compliance with minimum and maximum wages, while confirming some rights such as the obligation of the state to spend not less than 4% and 3% of the DGP on education and health respectively. Moreover, rights of women, labor and senior citizens were safeguarded in rather loose wording that enable circumventing such rights. The “EIPR Study on Economic and Social Rights in the 2014 Constitution” illustrated that the decisive factor shall be the actual execution of the Constitution, given the absence of binding obligation in most of the provisions. Observation and examination of the extent of promoting such constitutional rights in reality throughout 2014 showed the failure of the government to provide the safety nets required by the poor in the face of the economic crisis. Furthermore, continuous lack of transparency is ominous of the persistence of widespread corruption, as well as the broken promises of the government with respect to health, environment, and housing issues.

The year 2014 saw the issuance of several legislations related to socio-economic issues, despite the non-existence of an elected parliament and in the absence of a necessary social dialogue pertinent to the means of addressing the aggravating financial crisis and the entity to bear its cost. The 2014/15 budget came to put the larger brunt of the burden of financial reform on the poor, in the absence of a real socio-political negotiation concerning the participation in shouldering the burden of the crisis as indicated in a study launched by EIPR in July 2014.

The budget reflected the inability to achieve the target of the Constitutional provision related to spending on health and education. Actual spending was much lesser than the targets set in the Constitution: spending on health did not exceed 1.8% despite the provision in the Constitution that the minimum should be 3% with the budget of 2016/17. On the other hand, spending on education remained as is, which raises suspicions concerning the possibility and probability of achieving the percentages targeted by the Constitution.

Moreover, the subsidy on the prices of energy consumed by the poor was removed. It was experienced directly through the increases in the cost of public transportation or through the increase in the cost of electricity and household gas, or indirectly through the impact this had on the prices of food, and in turn the living standards of the poor – given the weak social safety nets. The government failed to make up for the vulnerable consumers with the soaring prices of household gas and electricity. However, it tried to compensate investors in industries with high energy consumption by permitting the use of coal as an alternative source of energy, despite the serious impact on health and environment.

The study on “Social Housing” and the shifts in its policies since Mubarak regime up to the project of the “One-million units” promoted by President Sisi illustrated that the common factor of both approaches is spending billions of pounds on housing projects offering fully owned units and supposedly targeting “low-income” segments. However, the members of the middle and upper classes rather competed with the poorer groups in accessing such projects. The key beneficiary turned out to be big contracting companies and real estate speculators. Three years into the project that started in 2011, and after the promise of delivering thousands of units to the poor, not more than 57 units have been delivered so far up to mid November. This was the case given the insistence of the government on real estate financing, which excludes the full range of the informal sector, i.e. one of the poorest segments in Egypt, while squeezing the expenses of the poor benefiting from the project.

During this year the issue of hepatitis was discussed anew with the announcement of discovering a medicine for treating the victims – accounting for the staggering figure of 8-15 million persons. Close examination of this issue revealed the utter failure of the government to abide by the constitutional right of the citizens to treatment, regardless their social background, by giving access to the medicine at affordable prices. The study prepared by EIPR “Virus C treatment in Egypt: Why is the cost a challenge?” illustrated the underlying causes of the crisis of health in Egypt as the lack of transparency concerning economic options and of an integrated strategy, while failing to put the poor on the agenda of political options. This indeed compromises the principle of the right to health, constitutionally provided for.

Even when the government attempted to execute Article (18) of the Constitution criminalizing the refusal to offer treatment of any form to any person at times of emergency or in life-threatening situations, this right was rather regulated by a decree issued by the Prime Minister, not supported with any clear executive controls or mechanisms. This indeed raises many suspicions concerning the seriousness and effectiveness of the decree.

EIPR believes that there is no clear political line related to economic issues to address bridging the huge and increasing gaps in incomes, reducing poverty, and reforming collapsing social services – to the detriment of the rights of Egyptians to health, education, and housing. The current crisis is indeed further aggravated by the lack of transparency in managing the state budget, targeting financial controls of hedge funds or reforming the taxation regime, instead of seeking alternative solutions infringing on social spending targeting the poor in the areas of health, education, and subsidies. A study prepared by EIPR, “Transparency of the State Budget: The lacking economic need”, shows that Egypt still has a very long way to go to be on part with international transparency standards, which would achieve economic governance and the promotion of the right of citizens, particularly the poor, to participate in the making and control of public policies.

Civil freedoms: A Constitution celebrating civil and political freedoms citizens cannot enjoy

Last year has seen the worst attack on a whole range of civil and political freedoms constitutionally safeguarded for decades. The attack was focused on the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of association, freedom of conscience and belief, freedom of religion, the right to privacy and fair trial, as well as a broad spectrum of abuses of gender-based rights.

Despite the relative improvement in the safeguards to some of the fundamental rights by the 2014 Constitution compared to the 2012 version, EIPR concluded that such amendments are still “below expectations.” In the area of freedom of religion and belief, the constitutional document retracted the protection of the four pillars thereof: the freedom of taking a belief or religion without coercion, the right to not to believe, the right to practice religious rites freely within the framework of public order and morality, and the right to raise children according to religious beliefs of the parents. Whereas Article (64) guarantees freedom of belief, this freedom was compromised in terms of one of the key components mentioned hereinabove, namely the right to practice religious rites. This right was restricted to the followers of heavenly religions acknowledged by the official religious institution only. This deprives religious minorities from the right of practicing religious rites and rather opens a channel for prosecution by the security forces, based on this vague text. Moreover, the new Constitution reproduced the very same sectarian wording used by successive Egyptian governments in regulating personal status and the selection of spiritual leaders for recognized minorities. This is indeed a retraction on the Egyptian constitutional heritage, and indifference to the suffering of a wide segment of Egyptian citizens, arising from the conservative theological explanations of personal status.

EIPR followed the manifestations of these provisions in legislation and practice throughout 2014. The Initiative, thus, published a lengthy comment on the “Statutes for electing Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria” approved by the Holy Synod. EIPR noted in the comment various forms of discrimination among the Coptic community members approved by the proposed statutes. It emphasized the importance of resolving the controversy around Article (3) of the Constitution, by providing a clear interpretation of the content and the body addressed thereby, so that the leaders of the official religious institution would not monopolize the formulation of legislation based on this Article. EIPR has also dealt with some of the disputes related to personal status of Copts, particularly those related to the possibility of divorce or second marriage. EIPR has hosted the Freedom of Religion and Belief Forum’s session to discuss a unified personal status law for Egyptian Christians proposed by the Ministry of Justice, in light of court judgments over the past year, primarily the ruling of “breakaway with the sect”, which was first of a kind to enable any Coptic citizen to file for divorce not necessarily on grounds of adultery.

EIPR has also followed closely widespread abuses against religious minorities, observed well before January 2011 and affecting all components of the freedom of religion. EIPR had sent a fact-finding mission to the village of Deir Jabal el-Teir, whose inhabitants were subject to collective punishment by police forces in Minia governorate in the aftermath of a sectarian conflict. Moreover, EIPR followed the trials of holders of opinions contradictory to the thought of the Sunni Muslim majority, which were initiated based on the provision dubbed as “contempt of religion” in the Egyptian Penal Code. In this regard, a detailed commentary was released on similar court rulings this year. Furthermore, EIPR followed closely a set of trials of Shiite citizens. EIPR believes that the common factor among all such trials is the attempt to monopolize and standardize a single religious discourse that delineates religious freedoms, and restricts any safeguards thereto.

As such, restricting freedom of religion over the past year was not limited to religious minorities contravening the Sunni Muslim majority, but rather included the followers of the majority themselves by restricting one of the key components of this freedom, namely the right to practice religious rites. Last year a series of laws and administrative decisions were issued by the Ministry of Endowments with the sole purpose of tightening the grip on the activities not only of mosques, but of all religious practices – including sermons and lessons. Law 51/ 2014 was issued to regulate preaching and teaching in mosques. Article (5) of the law provided for a penalty of imprisonment from one month to a year, and/or a fine ranging EGP 20-50 thousand, for any person violating Article (2) thereof – which provides for the prohibition of any preaching or teaching of religion except upon receiving a license from the Ministry or Al-Azhar. This penalty would also be doubled in cases of recidivism. EIPR believes that such an aggravated penalty against the backdrop of the political conflict with Islamists is but a serious indicator of monopolizing all forms of religious expression, which is but a continuation of the same system of legislation and policies that have been governing the management of mosques throughout the last century. This is the same framework that governs the ideology of political Islamists who believe in the necessity of monopolizing the representation of religion, and of imposing an official view of Islam. 

EIPR conducted an independent study for examining the features of this monopoly and its manifestations, as well as its internal contradictions. Thus, a study on the policies of the management of mosques was issued followed by a position paper on building places of worship, where a comprehensive view on the issue of regulating the construction of places of worship in Egypt is presented. Both studies encouraged the enactment of a unified law regulating this issue within the context of securing the right to practice religious rites for all without discrimination.

The conflict with the Islamists did not hover over the freedom of religion only. In fact, the interim administration (July 2013 until June 2014) followed a clashing approach with all forms of peaceful expression of opinion under the pretext of confronting the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. This approach was first revealed with the ferocious dispersal of the sit-ins of the supporters of the former President Morsi in Rabaa and el-Nahda Squares, accompanied with unprecedentedly extensive extrajudicial killing, and ultimately ending in the arrest of thousands of citizens against charges of violating the law prohibiting protests issued in November 2013. This staggering restriction of the right to peaceful assembly was the subject of a position paper by EIPR on the constitutionality of this law detailing the contradiction between the provisions of the Constitution and the Law, and demanding the immediate revocation thereof, while calling upon courts to refuse its execution.

Moreover, 2014 was a year of additional restriction to the freedom of association. This was manifest in the warning sent by the Ministry of Social Solidarity to NGOs registered under other laws, and not subject to the supervision of the Ministry, to promptly register as NGOs in compliance with Law 84/ 2002. EIPR believes that this warning is but a harbinger of a potential attack on civil society organizations at large, and rights organizations in particular. The purpose of this aggression would be protecting the policies of the new presidency and government from any form of control, criticism, or accountability. This warning was coupled with a media campaign seeking to intimidate these organizations and to hinder their work. Furthermore, a new version of the Law governing NGOs was announced as a draft to be presented to the upcoming parliament. This draft cannot be described but as a more authoritarian version of the current restrictive law that has impeded civil work for more than a full decade. In a response to this attack, EIPR in collaboration with its partners launched a campaign, “Civil society: My Right, Your Right”, which issued several documents and introductory materials explaining the role of civil society in defending the rights of Egyptian citizens over the past three decades. The campaign has also delivered the viewpoint of rights organizations concerning a new law securing the independence and the democracy of civil society organizations. EIPR and other independent organizations expressed their desire to engage in a serious discussion with the Egyptian government concerning these amendments as well as other issues related to rights work – without using the language of intimidation or mistrust.

This year has also witnessed the worst abuses in decades for a wide variety of rights, primarily the right to privacy and fair trial – in cases involving sexual orientation. During this year, the Public Morality Investigation Department, Ministry of Interior, targeted a large number of Egyptian citizens assumed to be homosexuals. At least 150 citizens have been prosecuted for charges such as the usual practice of debauchery- a charge that is exclusively and routinely interpreted to allow for the prosecution of homosexual citizens. This was accompanied with a campaign of incitement in the media which violated the right to privacy enshrined in the Constitution. The investigation authorities treated suspected in such cases intransigently thus violating their right to fair trial. This campaign is the first step on the path of generalizing an image of moral conservativism as the guise of the current presidency and government, which seeks to clamp down on private lives in the name of preserving public morality. EIPR observed these violations and addressed them in statements and official positions, while demanding that the Ministry of Interior refrain from attacking homosexuals and safeguarding fair trial for all defendants in such cases. 

Conclusion: Looking ahead

The serious violations of Egyptians’ human rights in 2014 is but a continuation of an authoritarian tradition that has begun decades ago. However, 2014 marked an alarmingly dramatic decline in the effectiveness and impartiality of state institutions that, nevertheless, continue to fight reform and change.

Millions are expected to be pushed under the poverty line as a result of 2014’s economic decisions, and thousands remain in prisons for their opinions, political ideologies and sexual orientation. Over a hundred death sentences have been passed against political dissidents and other suspects in common law cases.

Decisions that affect the entire populations are made in a legislative vacuum, without transparency and in the absence of accountability mechanisms.

Trust in the judiciary and security establishments is eroding, amid an absence of any real political will to push real reforms.

This situation threatens the social fabric of the country with more polarization and divide, and raises alarms that more individuals and groups will resort to taking matters into their own hands, either to force retribution, or to be heard in the absence of free space to voice grievances.