EIPR: the fundamental goal of the current emergency measures is to preserve lives and protect society from the spread of COVID-19

Press Release

6 April 2020

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is following the Egyptian government’s efforts to combat  COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, including preventive measures like banning assemblies, closing schools and universities, suspending flights, imposing a partial curfew enforced by the police and taking prosecutorial measures to contain rumours and counter commercial fraud and profiteering from the crisis.

EIPR calls on the Egyptian authorities not to exempt detention facilities and prisons from measures taken to reduce crowding and limit the spread of the virus, including  police vehicles used to transfer people arrested for violating curfew and closure measures. When enforcing these legal measures, the authorities should always consider their primary objective—protecting lives and minimizing gatherings and density.

Since Prime Ministerial1Decree 768/2020 was promulgated on 25 March declaring a partial curfew around the country, law enforcement has fined shops and workplaces in violation and arrested citizens breaking the curfew. According to official reports and press coverage, as well as communications from defense attorneys, these enforcement efforts resulted in the arrest of hundreds of people in the first ten days of the curfew. One news outlet, for example, reported the arrest of 2,100 people in Qalyubiya during this period.2 Arrestees are typically moved in crowded transport trucks, according to defense lawyers,3and are briefly detained before being brought before the prosecution which then releases them.

Although these enforcement actions are lawful, the exceptional circumstances that called for such preventive measures in the first place make it incumbent on the criminal justice system to consider different ways of deterring citizens from breaking the curfew, to avoid causing the very crowding that government agencies are attempting to prevent. Such actions can potentially expose police personnel, prosecutors, and detainees that are already kept in police station detention facilities to an increased risk of infection, a risk that in turn can be passed on to their families and the wider society.

Some individuals have also been arrested from their homes for writing posts on social media, among them lawyer Mohsen al-Bahnasi, who was remanded and accused in a new case (558/2020/State Security Investigations) of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and abusing social media. This happened on account of social media posts that allegedly included commentary and appeals to reduce the number of prisoners in Egypt’s penal institutions.

Given the lack of accurate figures of the number of arrestees, it is difficult to predict the magnitude of theoretical risk to them and those they come into contact with, including police and prosecutors. This in turn could undermine the Egyptian government’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus by banning all gatherings of all types. Moreover, we are concerned about the health of lawyer Mohsen al-Bahnasi , as well the increasing number of prisoners in Egyptian penal institutions, after the prosecution had initially made a step towards reducing crowding by releasing 15 people held in pre-trial detention and remand in connection with a number of political cases on 19 March.

Poor health conditions in detention facilities and overcrowding in prisons and police station lockups is not a problem exclusive to Egypt. In fact, the World Health Organization has warned that the prisons may become virus hotspots in numerous states.4 Thus, we urge the Public Prosecution to release those detained in connection with case no. 558/2020 and to drop all charges against them. Egypt is now in the second phase of the epidemic, and criminal justice institutions cannot be exempted from state efforts to combat the virus and minimize the chances of reaching phase three of ‘community transmission,’ according to the WHO’s taxonomy.

We call on the Egyptian authorities not to exclude places of detention from their attempts to reduce crowds and to keep in mind the humanitarian aspect and the objective of its preventive measures. To this end, the Interior Ministry could use multiple tools of enforcement prior to arrest and detention, such as: 

1. Issue warnings and/or instructions to leave, and the immediate dispersal of any gatherings small or large. 

2. Levy an on-the-spot fine whenever possible, at the discretion of police, pursuant to the prime ministerial decree, based on Article 5 of the emergency law, as noted in a statement issued by the Public Prosecution on 3 April.5

3. In cases in which police and law enforcement officials deem it necessary to take legal action, law enforcement officials could ticket the offending citizen and then release them. The report would then progress through the criminal justice system without remand: it would be filed at the police station and from there with the competent prosecution, after which an order would be issued summoning the citizen to appear in court on an appropriate date. This would act as a deterrent while also avoiding or minimising crowding in police transport vehicles and police stations.

On a related note, we again urge the president, the public prosecutor, and the interior minister to consider reducing crowding in Egyptian prisons, and thereby minimizing the potential for the virus’s spread within, by taking the following measures:

1. Redistribute and transport prisoners to locations more conducive to the implementation of the preventive measures set forth by WHO directives on preparedness, prevention, and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention,6which include recommendations for heating, light, and ventilation, as well as the provision of soap and water to all detainees. 

2. Reduce the number of prisoners by releasing all prisoners over the age of 60 (the group most susceptible to coronavirus, according to WHO), children, pregnant women, mothers with newborns and children under the age of 2, disabled prisoners living with disabilities, and prisoners with cancer, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases, HIV and other terminal diseases. 

3. Consider issuing an exceptional presidential amnesty pursuant to provisions of the Prisons Regulations Law, to cover every prisoner who has served at least half of their sentence for less serious and low-risk offenses, which would include, for example, people given light sentences for civil debt and prisoners sentenced for the use, consumption, or minor possession of drugs. (Other countries facing the brunt of the epidemic are considering similar measures.) 

4. Release all pretrial and remand detainees who have a known address and meet conditions for release (e.g., that they are not able to influence the course of the investigation). Pretrial detention and other investigation preventive measures, such as requiring defendants to appear in police stations, can be replaced with another measure set forth in law—namely, house arrest, which is consistent with the other government measures discussed above.