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Human Rights Watch calls on cabinet to revoke ban on strikes, demonstrations

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, March 25, 2011 - The Egyptian cabinet's announcement on March 24, 2011, of a new law banning strikes and demonstrations that impede the work of public institutions violates international law protections for free assembly and should be reversed immediately, Human Rights Watch said today.

The cabinet's claims that this law is an exceptional measure under the country's emergency law, which is still in effect, is a reminder of the need to revoke the emergency law immediately, Human Rights Watch said. An end to the state of emergency was one of the primary demands of the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square.

"This virtually blanket ban on strikes and demonstrations is a betrayal of the demands of Tahrir protesters for a free Egypt, and a slap in the face of the families whose loved ones died protesting for freedom," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Any genuine transition toward democracy must be based on respect for the basic rights of the people, including their right to demonstrate."

In the minutes of its third meeting, on March 24, published on its official website, the Egyptian cabinet announced the law, which criminalizes and imposes financial penalties for strikes and demonstrations, and said that it had sent the law to the Supreme Military Council for ratification. The new law provides for punishment "with imprisonment or a fine of not less than 50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$8,400), and not more than 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($16,806) for all those who during the state of emergency call for demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, or gatherings, or participate in any of the above, leading to the impediment or the obstruction of any of the state institutions or public authorities from performing their role."

The law also penalizes incitement, calls, writings, or any other public advertisements for a protest or strike with imprisonment, and a fine of not less than 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,040) and not more than 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($8,400). It provides for imprisonment of not less than one year for the use of violence during a protest or strike, or if the protest or strike results in any destruction of property, "harm to national unity, societal peace or public order," or "harm to public funds, buildings or public or private property."

As drafted, the law's overbroad and vague provisions, including banning protests that generally "obstruct" state institutions, or "harm societal peace," do not meet the narrowly permitted grounds for limits on public assembly under international law, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law, terms such as "national security" and "public safety" must refer to situations involving an immediate and violent threat to the nation. As party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, Egypt is obliged to respect and ensure the right to freedom of assembly along with the right to strike.

The law's attempt to criminalize speech calling for demonstrations is an unlawful restriction on the internationally protected right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said.

The provisions to criminalize demonstrations that harm public order or public funds are of particular concern because of the sweeping arrests over the past few weeks of protesters accused of disrupting public order and destroying property, Human Rights Watch said. On February 25, March 6 and March 9, army and military police officers arrested peaceful demonstrators, detained them, in some cases tortured them, and brought them to trial before military courts that do not meet minimal due process standards.

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