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On Egypt's favourite intimidation method

Graphic courtesy of AFTE and CIHRS

The following statement is a press release for a joint report produced by cihrs.org and afteegypt.org on 23 November 2016.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) issued a joint report today on the increasing use of travel bans at Egyptian airports by security authorities, with the complicity of judicial bodies. Travel bans are an unconstitutional form of political retaliation and psychological harassment deployed against activists, in addition to academics, intellectuals, and figures from the media and political opposition.

Civic engagement in public affairs, free expression of dissenting opinions, and defense of Egyptian citizens' rights are all now punishable under the increasingly excessive and arbitrary use of the travel ban. The travel ban is also misused by the security apparatus to unlawfully extort information concerning relatives and friends of persons banned from travel. CIHRS and AFTE warn that with its markedly increasing use, the travel ban has become one of the most significant tools of repression in Egypt, aimed at indirectly deterring and intimidating Egyptians, as well as some non-Egyptians, inside and outside of the country.

The report covers the period from June 2014 to September 2016. It addresses the absence of a law regulating travel ban procedures and the notification of persons barred; an absence that has led to the delegation of travel ban issuance and regulation to the Interior Ministry; regulation that is articulated in ministerial decrees below the level of law. It is worth noting that there are several new travel bans imposed on HRDs (most recently, rights lawyers Malek Adly and Ahmed Ragheb, and women's rights defenders Azza Soliman and Aida Seif El Dawla) who were banned this month after the reporting period.

In over 45 pages, the report details dozens of testimonies from individuals subjected to travel bans, who were informed of the ban only after they reached the airport and were prepared to depart. The cases of those targeted by the ban -who include human rights defenders, political activists, academics, and media figures – illustrate the violations that accompanied or preceded the ban. For most, these violations did not end with the confiscation of their passports. Many were also illegally questioned at Homeland Security offices as part of their ongoing attempts to retrieve their confiscated passports and/or to determine the reasons for the ban and its duration.

Over the last 18 months, the travel ban has been drastically distorted from a reasonable precautionary measure into an overreaching security tool grossly exploited to stifle political dissent. Formerly applied pursuant to a court order and under strict rules against defendants who posed a flight risk, the travel ban is now an arbitrary sanction imposed by both security directive and judicial order on political and rights activists – in order to harass and punish them for opinions and stances that diverge from those of the regime and the security apparatus. As the report describes, travel bans are part of a set of retaliatory measures used with unprecedented frequency over the past two years.

Mohamed Zaree, a rights defender at CIHRS who is currently banned from traveling, singled out the judiciary's collusion with security forces in his critique of the travel ban's misapplication: “It is shameful for the judiciary to join the security agencies in violating the constitution and deploying travel bans as a retaliatory measure against persons with independent or dissident opinions.” The fact that the judiciary is “mimicking the practices of the security agencies” is particularly regrettable considering that the judiciary was once known for its relative independence and impartiality vis-a-vis the state. The judiciary's transformation “into a tool for political persecution” represents a manifest decline in the judicial authority's stature.

The report divides persons barred from travel into those banned pursuant to security directives and others banned by judicial order, whether from the public prosecutor or an investigating judge. In both cases, the right of the targeted individual to be informed about the grounds and duration of the ban is violated. In fact, some persons barred from travel in connection with a court case were not summoned for questioning or to give a statement at all. They were informed of the ban only after they arrived to the airport, just prior to their scheduled departures.

The majority of the 80 travel bans documented by the report involve associated unlawful practices and procedures. For example, persons barred from travel were illegally interrogated, detained for hours, had their bags searched, and were compelled to surrender their personal computers and phones for examination. Their personal papers and any printed material with them were also confiscated, as were their passports. Their passports were at times destroyed; and if not, the targeted individuals had to undergo an arduous process of retrieving their passports at one of the security agencies' offices. Once at the security office, they were subjected to further questioning and alternately threatened or cajoled.

The fate of “wanted” travelers is typically determined by a phone call from a security agency at the Passport and Immigration Authority. The call either permits travel “temporarily” or denies exit or entry indefinitely. Another phone call informs persons barred from travel about retrieving their confiscated passports. According to testimonies in the report, most people receive such a phone call within three weeks, asking them to go to a security office—usually Homeland Security—to claim their passport. However, in some cases – such as the case of rights advocate Mohammed Lotfy -no phone call was received. He and many others were unable to secure a new passport.

For persons who received the phone call and responded to the unofficial summons, they were subjected to a “chat”—in reality, a lengthy interrogation—during which they were subjected to tacit threats and other forms of intimidation. They were questioned about their political opinions, including their opinions regarding the current president, and about their colleagues and friends in their line of work, whether political or advocacy. These meetings ended with a “recommendation” to inform the security apparatus of any planned travel abroad, including the purpose of the trip and destination, the inviting and hosting body, and colleagues traveling as well. This intimidation is often adequate to preempt these persons from even considering the trip, even if the travel ban were to be lifted.

Mohammed Abd al-Salam, a researcher at the AFTE, said, “The security apparatus believes that the lack of a statute regulating travel bans means they have a free hand to harass political activists, rights advocates, journalists, and academics, and to use the ban as means of punishing the free expression of opinion, in a clear violation of the law and international conventions.”

Despite the lack of a regulatory statute, the constitution does stipulate basic guidelines regarding travel bans; guidelines that are blatantly disregarded in practice by the security apparatus and the judiciary. Article 62 mandates that travel bans be issued by a judicial body and be of defined duration and cause, in accordance with the law. Article 54 requires all persons whose freedom is restricted to be immediately notified of the reasons for the restriction. In this context, the report reviews several administrative decrees and security directives that contravene the constitution by requiring security approval before travel to specified countries or for university faculty traveling abroad on academic missions.

The report further documents the financial, personal, and professional repercussions sustained as a result of travel bans, as detailed in the testimonies. Many targeted persons experienced serious financial losses accruing from travel arrangements or personal and moral losses related to being denied the ability to visit family abroad. These losses were sometimes further exacerbated by the denial of important professional positions or advancements due to the inability to travel; such as that which may occur when prevented from traveling to important academic conferences or to pursue academic studies abroad.

The report offers six basic recommendations to end the political use of travel bans to harass opposition figures and extort information unlawfully. CIHRS and AFTE urge the Interior Ministry, state security agencies, and investigative bodies including the public prosecution and the judiciary, to:

1) Respect constitutional principles on freedom of movement, and the rules regarding the restriction of this right.

2) Stop targeting rights advocates with travel bans that obstruct the work of human rights defenders and restrict Egyptian civil society.

3) Cease the arbitrary use of discretionary authority by the investigative bodies (specifically the public prosecution and the judiciary) to issue travel bans, and comply with international standards.

4) Adapt laws and statutes to meet constitutional obligations. This includes repealing administrative directives requiring citizens to obtain approval before travel to certain countries, and taking steps to inform citizens of risks they may face when traveling to countries experiencing severe conflict.

5) Abolish the directives at the Ministry of Higher Education that require faculty members to obtain security approval before traveling abroad.

6) End arbitrary use of discretionary power by the Interior Ministry and state security agencies to issue travel bans; and discontinue all unlawful practices, such as detention, interrogation, the confiscation of passports, and the extortion of political and rights activists by offering their confiscated passports for information.

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