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Human Rights Watch urges military to make clear break with past repressive policies

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Cairo, June 7, 2011 - Egypt's transition to a democracy that respects the rule of law and human rights is at risk unless the military transition government carries out a number of immediate human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) should lift the state of emergency and repeal the Emergency Law, ensure the prosecution of security officials responsible for serious abuses, repeal laws that restrict free expression, association and assembly, and end trials of civilians before military tribunals, Human Rights Watch said. On June 7, 2011, Human Rights Watch concluded three days of meetings with Egyptian officials and members of civil society, including a member of the SCAF, Prime Minister Dr. Essam Sharaf, justice minister Counselor Mohamed Abdel Aziz El Guindy, and the assistant interior minister, General Marwan Mostafa.

"At this critical period of transition, the military should make a clear break with the repressive policies of the past, and this means ending military trials, repealing the emergency law, and laws that restrict freedoms," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who led the meetings in Cairo for Human Rights Watch. "Egypt has started to try some former officials, but unbroken impunity for the systematic torture of Egyptians over the past decades will only invite reoccurrence of abuse."

The Human Rights Watch delegation also included Hassan Elmasry, an international board member; Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director, and Heba Morayef, the Egypt representative.

The Egyptian authorities have made some progress in a number of areas, Human Rights Watch said. These include revising the Political Parties Law to allow the establishment of new political parties and independent trade unions, opening trials of some senior security and political officials on charges of corruption and of killing unarmed protesters, and creating consultative committees for dialogue with the political opposition and civil society.

However, the military government has yet to end the discredited state of emergency and to abolish the Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958), which allows authorities to detain people without charge and to try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards, provide no right of appeal, and have been notorious for relying on confessions obtained under torture. On June 4, in the first outright use of the Emergency Law since the revolution, the public prosecutor referred 48 suspects arrested after the sectarian violence at a church in Imababa, Cairo, on May 7, to an Emergency High State Security Court.

"The current levels of crime and threats to security don't amount to a public emergency that threaten the life of the nation, the only permissible criteria for imposing emergency rule," Roth said. "Mubarak used the Emergency Law to put security officials above the law and subject Egyptians to arbitrary arrest and detention; these practices have no place in a new Egypt."

With parliamentary elections scheduled for September, the government should move quickly to abolish immediately a number of laws that restrict essential freedoms and preclude the possibility of a fair and free election, Human Rights Watch said. These include penal code provisions that criminalize free expression, such as Article 184 on "insulting public authorities," Article 179 on "insulting the president," and Article 102 on "spreading false information."

The government should also rescind the new strike and demonstration law, which bans protests that "obstruct" state institutions, or "harm societal peace," in violation of the narrowly permitted grounds for limits on public assembly under international law.

The government should also revoke the Assembly Law of 1914, which requires any gathering, defined as five or more persons, to disperse if the authorities order them to, and the 1923 Law Assembly and Meetings (Law 14), which requires advance approval from the interior ministry to organize a demonstration. It also sets penalties for those who plan, organize, or participate in an unannounced or unapproved demonstration.

Finally, the transitional government should amend the Associations Law to allow nongovernmental organizations to be established without government approval, to repeal provisions authorizing government interference in the operation of these groups, and to eliminate criminal penalties for participation in unregistered organizations. The government should abolish restrictions on civil society, which needs to be free to organize itself as it sees fit, Human Rights Watch said.

Under international human rights law, free and fair elections require guarantees of free expression, including for the media, and free access to information. These guarantees are essential to generate the open discussion and debate about critical policy matters needed by Egyptians to cast informed votes, as well as to allow political groups to organize and demonstrate freely during the period leading up to the elections.

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