Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: July to December 2016 - Egypt

Restrictions on human rights in Egypt continued in the second half of 2016, including growing restrictions on civil society. We raised our concerns around political detentions, torture and restrictions on civil society in Egypt in our national statement at the UN Human Rights Council in September under Item 4 (human rights situations that require the Human Rights Council’s attention). The Prime Minister raised human rights concerns with President Sisi at their meeting in September 2016. During this period work also began on two projects funded by the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy. In September, the Embassy in Cairo organised “Gender September”: a month of events, campaigns and public diplomacy promoting gender equality.

Restrictions on civil society worsened significantly. Several human rights defenders and NGOs were banned from travelling and/or had their assets frozen in connection with the ongoing ‘Foreign Funding Case’ against human rights NGOs. In September, the assets of 3 prominent human rights NGOs and 5 human rights defenders were frozen by judicial order in connection with the case. In November, Azza Soliman, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, was arrested and subsequently released on bail in connection with the case. Later that month a Cairo court upheld an asset freeze against Azza Soliman and her law firm, Lawyers for Justice and Peace. In August, prominent human rights NGO Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies announced that it would cancel its annual summer school after 22 years of operation due to security risks from the state.

In November 2016, Egypt’s parliament passed a new draft NGO law drafted by MPs that significantly restricts NGOs’ ability to register, access funding and operate freely. A member of the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) said the NCHR would file a case against the law on grounds that it was unconstitutional if it passed. 60 local and international NGOs published a joint statement saying the law would “wipe out independent civil society”. In December 2016, President Sisi announced that he would send the draft back to parliament for reconsideration. At the end of 2016, the Egyptian authorities had not clarified whether the draft law was currently with the President or parliament.

These developments continue a worrying trend of restrictions on civil society, and the ability for NGOs and human rights defenders to operate freely. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Middle East and Africa, Tobias Ellwood and senior officials both in London and Cairo have raised concerns around restrictions on civil society with their Egyptian counterparts, and Minister Ellwood raised his concerns about the draft NGO law with Egyptian parliamentarians in November and issued a statement in December. Embassy staff monitored the foreign funding case by attending court hearings.

Large numbers of political activists and journalists remained in detention, many of whom were held for long periods in pre-trial detention, in some cases in violation of Egypt’s legal limits. In December 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists announced that 25 journalists remained imprisoned for their work in Egypt – the third highest number in the world. In September, the NGO the Arab Network for Human Rights Information estimated that there are 106,000 people in prison in Egypt including 60,000 political detainees. The Egyptian state does not publish official figures on detentions so it is impossible to verify this figure. Several political detainees were released during the period. Ahmad Abdallah, Board Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms; human rights lawyer Malek Adly; and journalist Mahmoud el Saqqa were all released on bail. Chatshow host Islam el Beheiry and activist Sanaa Seif were pardoned in November as part of a Presidential initiative to pardon detained youth. We welcome these releases and encourage further pardons of political detainees.

Reports of torture, enforced disappearance and deaths in detention continued. Local NGO the Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence compiled media reports of 190 cases of torture and 47 deaths in detention from July to November 2016. There are no official statistics, but totals are likely to be higher as not all cases are reported by the press. Local NGO, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, documented 187 enforced disappearances between August and November 2016. There are no official statistics to verify this figure. In September 2016, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting degrading conditions at Cairo’s Al Aqrab prison, which it claims amount to torture in some cases and may have contributed to the deaths of prisoners. This is consistent with other accounts from former detainees.

Egyptian courts continued to use the death penalty. In December 2016 the execution of Adel Habbara was carried out, after all stages of appeal were exhausted. He was convicted of several offences, including carrying out a terrorist attack resulting in the deaths of 25 police conscripts in August 2013. In November 2016, the Court of Cassation overturned a death sentence against former President Mohamed Morsi and ordered a retrial in one of the cases against him. He continues to serve final sentences issued in other cases against him. The practice of conducting mass trials continued, and we note that the mass trial of 494 individuals on charges related to a protest that took place in August 2013, which includes Irish national Ibrahim Halawa, was adjourned repeatedly.

During July and August several incidents of sectarian violence against Coptic Christians were reported by the media and NGOs. In July, a priest’s cousin was killed and three others injured during a dispute in Minya governorate, and a mob burned down the houses of five Christians following rumours that a church was going to be built. Police arrested alleged perpetrators after these and other incidents, but NGOs say sectarian incidents are often addressed with customary reconciliation sessions rather than through the formal justice system. After the attacks President Sisi called for national unity and the rebuilding of damaged churches. In December, a terrorist attack at the Boutroseya Church next to St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo killed 28 and wounded more than 35 others. President Sisi and the Egyptian government have condemned the attack and the church was quickly restored. In August, Egypt passed a new church construction law setting out regulations for building or repairing churches, after consultation with representatives of the Coptic, Catholic and Protestant churches. Some NGOs criticised the law on the grounds that it treated churches differently from mosques, and called for a unified law on all places of worship.

Restrictions on freedom of expression continued. In November, the head of Egypt’s Journalists’ Syndicate and two members of its board were sentenced to 2 years in prison for harbouring two journalists wanted by police for spreading false news. All 3 have been released on bail and are appealing the sentence. In December, a government committee charged with seizing the assets of the Muslim Brotherhood froze the assets of businessman Mostafa Sakr, owner of the Business News Group which publishes the English-language newspaper Daily News Egypt and Arabic-language Boursa News. He denies membership of any political or religious group.

On 4 December, Egypt’s Constitutional Court ruled Article 10 of the Protest Law, which gave the Interior Ministry the right to ban protests, unconstitutional. Following the verdict, the Egyptian Prime Minister announced that the government would amend the law. Ministers and officials have previously lobbied the government to amend the law. We welcome the Court’s decision and look to the Egyptian government to ensure the constitutional rights of Egyptians are protected.