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Newly elected Parliament urged to dismantle tools of repression

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, January 16, 2012 - Egypt's newly elected parliament should urgently reform the arsenal of laws used by the Mubarak government to restrict freedoms, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today outlining priority areas for legislative and institutional reform. These laws were used to curb free expression and criticism of government, limit association and assembly, detain people indefinitely without charge, and shield an abusive police force from accountability.

The 46-page report, "The Road Ahead: A Human Rights Agenda for Egypt's New Parliament," sets out nine areas of Egyptian law that the newly elected parliament must urgently reform if the law is to become an instrument that protects Egyptians' rights rather than represses them. Egypt's existing laws - the penal code, associations law, assembly law, and emergency law - limit public freedoms necessary for a democratic transition, challenge respect for the rule of law, and impede accountability for abuses by the police and the military, Human Rights Watch said.

"Egypt's stalled transition can be revived only if the new parliament dismantles Egypt's repressive legal framework, the toolbox the government has relied on for decades to silence journalists, punish political opponents, and stifle civil society," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Egypt's new political parties need to live up to the promises of the Egyptian uprising by ensuring that no government can ever again trample on the rights of the Egyptian people."

Egypt's transitional political leaders have failed to reform these laws. The ruling military has relied on them to arrest protesters and journalists and to try over 12,000 civilians before military courts, adding to the heavy abusive legacy that Egypt's future civilian rulers will have to address, Human Rights Watch said.

Egypt's newly elected lower house of parliament, the People's Assembly, will sit for the first time on January 23, 2012, two days ahead of the first anniversary of the January 25 uprising that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

On February 13, 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued the first Constitutional Declaration stating that, "The SCAF will issue laws during the transitional period." Since Mubarak's ouster the SCAF has been the sole authority with the power to amend or approve amendments to existing laws, and issue or approve new ones. But with the elections for the country's new parliament now complete, a new body also will be able to pass laws. It is unclear, however, what the power and mandate of the new parliament will be vis-à-vis the SCAF.

Over the past year, Egyptians have experienced many of the same human rights abuses that characterized Mubarak's police state, Human Rights Watch said. Under SCAF leadership, excessive use of force and extrajudicial killings, torture, attacks on peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrests of bloggers and journalists have become commonplace and illustrate how little has changed, Human Rights Watch said. The SCAF has justified many of these abuses by noting that they are authorized under existing laws.

Military prosecutors have sentenced or summoned dozens of activists and journalists for "insulting the military" or "spreading false information." Both charges violate international human rights law, which protects the right to insult under freedom of expression and limits penalties for peaceful speech to civil defamation. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the expert body that provides authoritative interpretations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party, states categorically in its recently-issued General Comment No. 34, on article 19 on Freedom of Expression, that, "States parties should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration."

By this standard, article 184 of the Egyptian penal code, which criminalizes "insulting the People's Assembly, the Shura Council or any State Authority, or the Army or the Courts," is incompatible with international law and Egypt's new parliament should amend it, along with other provisions that restrict speech, accordingly, Human Rights Watch said.

"The military's prosecution of journalists and protesters under the country's existing laws is all the evidence one needs to know that changing leadership without changing laws will not ensure freedom," Whitson said. "Egyptians need to know that it is the law that protects their rights, not new leaders who merely claim to share their values."

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Click here for the full press release

Download the report ""The Road Ahead: A Human Rights Agenda for Egypt's New Parliament"
egypt_hrw_road_ahead_jan2012.pdf (341 KB)

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