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Cosmetic changes cannot justify keeping emergency law, says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, May 12, 2010 - The Egyptian government's announced modifications of the emergency law in place for almost three decades do not make renewal of the state of emergency any more acceptable, Human Rights Watch said today.

In an attempt to ward off criticism, the government repeated earlier claims that officials will restrict the application of the law to cases involving terrorism and drug-related crimes and said that it would no longer enforce certain measures, such as monitoring communications and confiscating property. The state of emergency was renewed on May 11, 2010, for two more years. The emergency law comes into force when a state of emergency is declared or extended.

"President Mubarak has again breached his promise of five years ago to end emergency rule," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The cosmetic changes announced this week don't change the fact that the state of emergency perpetuates official lawlessness and contempt for basic civil and political rights."

President Hosni Mubarak, during his 2005 election campaign, promised to replace the emergency law with new counter-terrorism legislation, but since then his government has renewed the emergency law three times, in May 2006, May 2008, and again this week. Egypt has been governed under emergency law almost continuously since 1967 and without interruption since Mubarak became president in October 1981 after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

The law gives the executive – in practice the Interior Ministry – extensive powers to suspend basic rights by prohibiting demonstrations, censoring newspapers, monitoring personal communications, and detaining people indefinitely without charge. Egyptian defense lawyers and human rights groups say at least 5,000 people currently remain in long-term detention without charge or trial under the emergency law. Some have been in jail for more than a decade.

In a session before the People's Assembly on May 11, Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif said that the government "commits itself before the representatives of the nation to not utilize the extraordinary measures made available under the emergency law except to confront the threat of terrorism and narcotics, and only to the extent necessary to confront these dangers." He stated that the government would ensure that constitutional and international safeguards are provided and that the use of the emergency law is subject to judicial supervision. Renewal of the law was passed in an evening session in the People's Assembly with 308 members of parliament voting in favor and 101 against. More than two-thirds of the parliament belong to the ruling National Democratic Party and can be counted on to support virtually any government initiative.

This is not the first time officials have claimed to restrict use of the emergency law to counter-terrorism and drug-related crimes. In February, Mostafa Hanafy, vice president of the Egyptian Council of State, told the United Nations Human Rights Council that the government had "made a commitment before parliament to use the emergency law only for terrorism and drug-related crimes and it has only implemented the rules of the emergency law in these cases." In August 2009, President Mubarak told the US television host Charlie Rose that Egypt "confines [its] recourse to the emergency law, to terrorist crimes. Otherwise it is the rule of law under the normal laws."

Despite these repeated claims, authorities have continued to use the emergency law to detain dissidents such as the blogger Hany Nazeer, who linked to his blog a controversial book that some in his village considered insulting to Islam. The government told Human Rights Watch that it imprisoned Nazeer "to protect [his] life in light of the anger and the strong uprising of the Muslims in Abu Tesht in Qena caused by his blog." State Security Investigations has detained Mus'ad Abul Fagr, a novelist and rights defender who had been outspokenly critical of the violation of the rights of Sinai Bedouin, under successive emergency law orders since February 15, 2008. Other political prisoners include the student activist Tarek Khedr and several persons detained solely on the grounds that they are members of the banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

The restriction to counter-terrorism and drug-related crimes was this time included in the text of the law renewing the state of emergency. The state newspaper Al Ahram announced in the top story on its front page on May 11 that "for the first time a clear legal guarantee will be attached to the extension of the state of emergency, since in previous years there was only a political commitment from the prime minister to the People's Assembly." Human Rights Watch said if a verbal commitment from the government to the legislature was not enough to ensure compliance by state security, putting it in writing was unlikely to change things.

"If the Egyptian government is serious about sharply limiting its use of the emergency law it should immediately free people like Hani Nazeer and Mus'ad Abul Fagr," Stork said.

The government also announced that there would be full judicial review of detention orders under the emergency law, but security forces have routinely disregarded court orders for the release of such detainees. The Interior Ministry has detained Nazeer under six successive emergency law orders for the past 19 months despite five court orders for his release, most recently on April 3. Abul Fagr remains in prison under a 13th emergency law order despite several court orders for his release.

"The cases of Nazeer and Abul Farag show how worthless government statements about judicial review really are," Stork said. "Security officials don't care about the law and have repeatedly ignored court orders for their release."

A May 11 government news release also stated that the government would no longer "exercise the following extraordinary powers previously available under Paragraphs 2,3,4 & 6 of Article 3 of the Emergency Law, among them: The monitoring of all forms of communication; the monitoring, censoring, and confiscation of media and publications, and the ordering the closure of publishing houses & broadcasters; the confiscation of property; the regulation of the hours of operation of commercial activities and the evacuation and isolation of certain areas."

But lawyers from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told Human Rights Watch that the authorities do not use these provisions of the emergency law so that this is a meaningless concession. The government instead uses other laws for these purposes, such as provisions under the Press Law and Penal code to censor publications.

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