Amnesty: the Arab world one year later

Amnesty International has released a new report on the state of human rights in the Middle East a year after the uprisings began. Below are a few excerpts on Egypt and Tunisia.

It is pretty scathing on SCAF’s handling of the transition in Egypt:

On the negative side too, the SCAF maintained the state of emergency continuously in force since 1981 and in September confirmed that it would enforce in full the draconian Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958) and extend it to criminalize acts such as blocking roads, broadcasting rumours and committing “assault on freedom to work”. These changes directly threaten freedom of expression and association, and the rights to assembly and to strike – and even reverse reforms that the Mubarak government had felt obliged to make by public pressure in recent years.

Other tough new laws were introduced, such as the Law on Thuggery (Law No. 10 of 2011) enacted in March to criminalize intimidation, “thuggery” and disturbing the peace, doubling sentences already prescribed in the Penal Code and providing for the death penalty.

The SCAF further tightened restrictions on media freedom, warning newspaper editors and journalists against publishing anything critical of the armed forces without prior consultation and permission. As well, human rights NGOs were threatened with prosecution if they accepted funding from abroad without prior permission. Journalists, bloggers and judges were investigated by military prosecutors or imprisoned by military courts for criticizing the army’s human rights violations during the uprising and the lack of reform.

Some of the SCAF’s legal changes and policies targeting basic rights reinforced long-standing patterns of serious human rights violations, while others – such as subjecting women protesters to forced “virginity tests” – represented disturbing new forms of abuse.

From the end of February onwards, the armed forces used violence to forcibly disperse protesters on several occasions. They used tear gas and rubber bullets and fired into the air with live ammunition and accused those they detained of looting or damaging public or private property or other crimes.
> Many of those arrested were held only briefly, but others were held for days, sometimes in situations amounting to enforced disappearance. Some were tortured or otherwise ill-treated. In September, a video circulated on the internet showed two detainees being mocked, beaten and subjected to electric shocks with tasers by a group of army and police officers, provoking an outcry. In response, the SCAF said it had ordered an investigation but its outcome had not been made public at the time of writing this report.

On 19 November, riot police forcibly dispersed a sit-in at Cairo’s Tahrir Square by people injured during the “25 January Revolution” who were demanding the transfer of power to civilian rule and to receive reparations. Thousands of protesters gathered in the square in solidarity. Military forces and riot police cleared the square using excessive force, resulting in deaths and injuries of protesters. Protesters once again set up camp in the square in the run-up to the start of the elections on 28 November.

Since the armed forces were deployed on 25 January, referrals of civilians to military courts took place in many governorates and in August, the military judiciary said it had ruled on nearly 12,000 cases. All were convicted ofcharges such as violating the curfew, using violence and possessing weapons. Sentences ranged from several months in prison to the death penalty.

Military courts were also used to try people arrested while protesting and workers on strike, as well as those charged with “thuggery”, destruction of property, theft or assault. Some journalists were charged with “insulting the army”, then released.

The report also notes that while Tunisia had made much better progress, there has been no justice yet for the victims of the police state, whether during or before the uprising:

Regrettably, no significant steps were taken by the new authorities to address the impunity for past human rights violations. Neither the police nor the judiciary, two of the institutions that had been directly responsible for or complicit in serious abuses, were made subject to significant reforms, except that the Interior Ministry dissolved the notorious Directorate for State Security (DSS) – known in Tunisia as the “political police” – in March. The DSS had been infamous for torturing detainees, close surveillance and intimidation of human rights defenders and independent journalists, and imposing restrictions on former political prisoners. The Ministry did not say what would be done in relation to DSS officials, prompting concern that they could escape justice and be transferred into other law enforcement units. In September, the Interior Ministry set out a “road map” for reform of the police, but made no reference to investigations or other action against police responsible for past abuses.

The Fact-Finding Commission set up to investigate human rights abuses committed during the uprising and in its aftermath (the Bouderbala Commission) issued some of its initial findings in July, but had not published its final report at the time of writing (early December 2011). The Commission also said it would not refer cases to the public prosecutor for investigation unless specifically asked to do so by individual lawyers. According to the interim government, at least 300 people died and 700 were injured during the uprising.

Trials, in their absence, of former President Ben Ali and members of his family on charges of corruption and drugs offences began in June. Ben Ali was sentenced later that month to 35 years’ imprisonment for embezzlement and misuse of state funds, and in July to an additional 15 years for drugs- and weapons-related offences. The former President was also among 139 former officials, including former Interior Ministers Rafik Haj Kacem and Ahmed Friaa, who were referred for military trial on charges arising from the killing and injuring of protesters between 17 December 2010 and 14 January 2011. However, families of victims and those injured were still waiting for justice.

Other countries are covered in the report, which you can get at http://www.amnestyusa.org.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.