The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged human rights
Sisi's jails

Excellent reporting by Tom Stevenson in the LRB on Egypt's disgusting, semi-clandestine prison system, and the tens of thousands of people being abused in it. 

It’s no secret that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive. Yet although in its treatment of prisoners and many other ways besides, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s is worse, statesmen around the world praise its role in Egypt’s ‘democratic transition’. When John Kerry visited Cairo last year he reported that Sisi had given him ‘a very strong sense of his commitment to human rights’. These issues, he said, were ‘very much’ on Sisi’s mind. For more than thirty years it was US policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a route to ‘regional security’. The US backed Mubarak’s regime until its very last days; even during the mass protests of January 2011, the US hoped Mubarak could survive if he made political concessions. Mubarak is gone, but the US Defense Department’s links with the Egyptian military – long-standing and solid – have remained. Officials are steadily restoring the flow of aid and equipment that was temporarily suspended in the wake of the coup: there is no serious ‘human rights’ issue for Washington.
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Amn al-Markezi is almost entirely free from public scrutiny. But the Egyptian army is even less accountable, and it is from military facilities such as Azouly prison in Ismailia, Agroot prison in Suez and the headquarters of Battalion 101 in Arish that the worst testimonies come. One man detained at Azouly claimed in a letter dated 24 March 2014 that access to the toilet was permitted once a day, before dawn, that inmates were tortured with boiling water and even boiling oil, and that he frequently heard women screaming somewhere inside the facility. Letters and survivors’ accounts describe three distinct layers inside these army camps. The first floor is for military prisoners who are lawfully detained. The second is known as the ‘prosecutions floor’ and holds civilians who have been given a military trial. The third floor – the ‘investigations floor’ – houses people who have been ‘disappeared’.
Third-floor detainees are known to have been held for up to six months, and are sometimes blindfolded throughout their incarceration. They are later sent to an official prison – often with serious injuries – wearing the same clothes they had on when they were arrested, and bearing papers with forged arrest dates. Holding civilian detainees inside a military prison is illegal, but proceedings would in any case be difficult given that the very existence of Azouly and Agroot is not officially acknowledged. Unknown numbers of prisoners are being held. They are subject to punitive sexual assault; suspension from ceilings, doors and windows; waterboarding; and being burned with cigarettes. Research by Human Rights Watch shows that between the beginning of November and the end of December last year, 820 new civilian cases were referred to military prosecutors.
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Men, women and even children who find themselves under arrest – whether they’re Muslim Brothers, students, labour activists, socialists, or just unemployed people protesting about their situation – are regarded as an army would regard captured combatants in a world without Geneva protocols. This is the essence of military dictatorship: a vision of the state and the population it rules as two opposing armies, the first better equipped but smaller than the second, which makes brutality an indispensable tactic.
When Arab regimes confront terrorism

From Abu Aardvark:

The U.S. is currently in the process of lining up a regional coalition to confront ISIS. Depending on how this coalition is formed and the goals to which it is devoted, it could be extremely useful for shutting down the flow of funds, guns, and fighters to jihadist groups in Syria. I'll have a lot more to say about that in another venue.

But there's just one point I want to throw out there now, because it doesn't seem to be getting much play: when Arab regimes set out to fight "terrorism" they almost always use it as pretext for political repression. When I hear an Arab leader talking with the United States about confronting terrorism these days, what I see is the journalist Mohammad Fahmy and the dedicated activists Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Mahienor al-Masry rotting in an Egyptian prison on trumped up charges while Secretary of State John Kerry opines on Cairo's path to democracy.

As if the protesters killed each other

Mada Masr's Naira Antoun reports on the National Human Rights Council's report on the deaths in Rabaa last summer. Unsurprisingly, the report skirts condemning the overwhelming state violence that took place that day (one of the bloodiest in Egypt's history). 

The council also criticized security forces for not giving protesters sufficient time after warnings to evacuate and for preventing injured protesters from receiving treatment.

 

No mention was made of the army, however. When asked about this, Amin said that military forces secured the area but did not participate in the dispersal itself, and as such, “it is not relevant to mention the army.”

In the council’s account, the presence of armed individuals was the primary cause of the bloodshed that occurred on August 14.

“It was if the protesters killed each other,” one journalist said — to applause from other attendees.

While the council repeatedly emphasized its impartiality and integrity, and its commitment to documenting violence on all sides, journalists demanded to hear about the violations of the security forces. When Amin responded that it was all in the videos, journalists called for videos of the police.

 

 

Pharaohs, Caliphs and Field Marshals

Eminent human rights activist Bahay eldine Hassan in the pages of the New York Times: 

Egypt has never ceased being a police state. Hazem el-Beblawi, the interim prime minister, says it “is run by the security bodies,” which control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary. Interrogations and court sessions take place in prisons, security directorates or police compounds. Eyewitnesses are no longer required to identify defendants. Warrants are issued by prosecutors after arrests. Brotherhood members are arrested based on their ranks in the organization rather than their involvement in crimes. When detainees ask to see a warrant, they may be hit over the head with the butt of a gun, as in the case of a leftist blogger, Alaa Abd El Fattah, and his wife, Manal. When a prominent international judge reviewed Manal’s account of the arrest, he described it as reminiscent of the days of apartheid in South Africa.

 

In the midst of its clampdown on the Brotherhood, the security apparatus shifted its focus and began targeting non-Islamist youth activists, under the same pretext of “fighting terrorism.” At the end of January, the Justice Ministry established special courts to accelerate trials for “suspected terrorists”; peaceful demonstrators, too, are referred to these courts.

Tarek Hussain, 20, was convicted last year of attacking the Brotherhood’s headquarters. Last month he was among dozens of young non-Islamist activists arrested as they demonstrated on the anniversary of the revolution. All were prosecuted as members of the Brotherhood.

Sayed Weza, 18, a member of the liberal April 6 movement, also took part in these demonstrations and was killed. His last Facebook post said, “Please tell the coming generation that we loved our country!”

 

Human rights NGO raided in Egypt

From the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies: 

EGYPT SECURITY FORCES RAID LEADING HUMAN RIGHT ORGANIZATION, HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS ARRESTED AND HELD INCOMMUNICADO

More than 60 security and police officers stormed the office of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) at approximately midnight on 18 December, 2013. According to eye witnesses some of the officers belonged to Azbakeya and Abdin police stations and some belonged to the Homeland Security Agency (formerly known as the National Security Agency).

The officers were heavily armed and held non-armed human rights defenders working at the ECESR at gunpoint using automatic machine guns. When the ECESR’s lawyer asked the police officers to provide them with a search/arrest warrant one of the officers, believed to belong to homeland security slapped him.  Another police officer tried to stop the homeland security officer from beating the ECESR employee at which point the homeland security officer also beat the police officer and tore his clothes.

The police confiscated three laptops and a computer monitor within the office.  They then arrested and blindfolded the ECESR lawyer, another ECESR employee and four volunteers.  They were then put into a car and taken to an unidentified location. They were forced to stay blindfolded for the duration of their detention. While being dragged to the car all six defenders were beaten and slapped despite not resisting. 

[...]

Lawyers from Egyptian human rights NGOs requested information on the whereabouts of the six defenders throughout the night, including at the Azbakeya and Abdin police stations, as well as at the Cairo Security Directorate. The whereabouts of the detainees were not revealed. Informal channels of information confirmed that the arrested human rights defenders were detained in an unknown Homeland Security detention facility.

The next morning (19 December) at approximately 10am, five of the six detainees were driven blindfolded again to the Abdeen police station.  The police returned the laptops and the monitor back to the arrested defenders and they were released at approximately 11 am.

Mohamed Adel, a well known member of the April 6th youth movement and a volunteer with the ESCER,  remains detained in an unknown location.

When the five other detainees were released they were told that they were arrested by mistake and that the main purpose of the raid was the arrest of Mohamed Adel.  Adel is standing trial along with Ahmed Maher, another prominent leader of the April 6thmovement and well-known activist Ahmed Douma.

However, CIHRS believes that the intent of the government was to intimidate independent rights groups in Egypt.   Moreover, the ECESR also believes the attack may be in response to the recent engagement of the ECESR on the review of Egypt at the United Nations (UN) treaty body on economic, social and cultural rights, as well as its ongoing engagement on the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of Egypt, and as such constitutes a reprisal for engagement with the UN. 

It is important to note that Adel surrendered himself to the court on the day that Maher and Douma’s detention was being renewed, and the court at this time ordered his release on grounds that he did not have a standing in the case.

The last time I saw Mohamed Adel he was depositing a request with the Kasr El Nil police station to stage a protest against the new protest law . He and his colleagues at ECESR were about to release a documentary about the ongoing Iron and Steel Workers strike in Helwan. 

In case you're wondering how things are in Egypt: not good

The highlights of the last week include:

1. A new law "regulating" protests that has been energetically put into effect by the Ministry of Interior.

The break-up of a protest outside the Shura Council. Uploaded by Mosireen on 2013-11-30.

2. The arrest of two of the country's most renowned digital activists and youth grassroots organizers, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher. That these two young men are being targeted (again!) is a worrying sign of how emboldened the Ministry of Interior feels to go after its non-Islamist enemies now. This is accompanied by the usual media campaign. We linked to a piece last week smearing activists as sexual deviants and immoral hooligans; here's another recent example of writing in a similar vein (it's in Arabic): "Human rights? What human?" 

3. The murder of Cairo University Engineering student Mohamed Reda, who was shot by police in yet another clash on campus. This has led to further protests and student ferment

Al Masry Al Youm video

4. Last but not least, the handing down of 11-year sentences to female teenage supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who held a protest. While Mubarak is out on appeal and police officers charged with shooting demonstrators have been cleared. 

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A murky battle

My latest Latitude column is on the difficult position of human rights activists in Egypt today -- and of that minority that is equally critical of the Brotherhood and of the military-police state.  

Democracy and human rights activists in Egypt are exhausted and worried. Many of them have spent the two and a half years since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak working nonstop — monitoring elections, submitting reform plans to ministers who have ignored them, counting bodies at the morgue — only to find themselves back at square one. The situation is “the worst it’s been since the 1990s,” a veteran human rights defender told me recently.

At Mada Masr, human right activist Sherif Azer discusses the issue as well. 

In an unprecedented moment, we are currently witnessing public support for human rights violations. The stereotypical idea that only governments are against human rights has been proven wrong, as the majority of Egyptians reveal their open rejection of the concept of human rights. We have seen people calling for sacrificing their own rights and freedoms, just to see their opposition removed. We, the human rights advocacy community, have been called traitors by friends and family members. People began openly calling for abandoning human rights altogether in the name of fighting "terrorism.”

I'm not sure I agree with Azer that the most effective argument for human rights, domestically, is an appeal to international law and treaties. It seems to me that highlighting an issue like torture here is more relevant. But of course when people offer to suspend or sacrifices their rights, they almost always do so in the belief that 1) it is temporary and limited and 2) they're not at risk because they aren't one of the criminals/terrorists/bad guys being targeted.

I've had several people compare the current moment in Egypt to the United States right after 9/11 -- a moment to which we can trace the seemingly irreversible erosion of some key protections and principles.