Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
15 - 21 July 1999
Issue No. 438
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Reporting on rights

By Amira Howeidy

The release of approximately 6,000 prisoners since Interior Minister Habib El-Adli took office at the end of 1997, has been perceived as "a positive development" and as indicating a slight improvement in the human rights situation in Egypt, human rights groups said on Monday. In an unprecedented move, three human rights groups -- the Centre for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA), Al-Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRCAP) -- held a press conference to discuss their first joint report on human rights conditions in Egypt, entitled "The Issues of Human Rights in Egypt." The meeting also discussed the tenth annual report issued by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR).

The joint press conference came almost two months after parliament passed a new government-sponsored law on non-governmental organisations (NGOs), triggering wide spread protests by human rights and other groups, which charged that the law was restrictive and aimed to further stifle freedom of association in the country. Although the new law prohibits political activity, the four organisations revealed that efforts are under way to formulate a 'Political Reform Charter' which they said will be presented to President Hosni Mubarak before the coming presidential referendum in September.

According to the joint report, human rights conditions in Egypt "deteriorated seriously in 1998" despite some positive changes. One development it mentioned is the "remarkable setback" in the activity of terrorist groups which was reflected in the "lower number of mutual killings between the police and the Islamists... and in the limited steps taken to end administrative detention of suspected Islamists by virtue of the notorious Emergency Law."

The Emergency Law, which has been in effect since the assassination of president Anwar El-Sadat in 1981, and which was last extended for three years in February 1997, is viewed as the principal vehicle for human rights abuses in the country. EOHR described the ongoing state of emergency established under emergency law as a "chronic syndrome," whereby "exceptions become the norm."

Both reports argued that 1998 witnessed the passing of a number of freedom restricting laws such as the so-called anti-thuggery law and the amendments of the Joint Stock Companies Law. Prior to its amendment, the Companies law provided flexible and practical legal channels for individuals to issue newspapers or magazines. But the amendments made to article 17b made the approval of the cabinet mandatory for those wishing to establish a company with the aim of publishing newspapers.

Another point of consensus in both reports is concern at the escalation in social violence, despite the significant decline in political violence. The reports also slammed what they claimed was the security forces increasing recourse to violence, or excessive force, in attempting to disperse peaceful gatherings.

Prison conditions are deteriorating, said HRCAP's Mohamed Zari'. Both reports monitored cases of abuse of prisoners in police stations and the State Security Intelligence headquarters. Apart from the deaths of four people in police centres from suspected torture, around 14 people died in prison as a result of deteriorating health conditions, claimed the EOHR report.

Zari' opined that possibly some 20,000 persons were currently under administrative detention. The figure, has been the center of inconclusive debate between the government and human rights groups. Zari', nevertheless, applauded the Interior Ministry's release of 6,000 political detainees which he viewed as "an improvement deserving of praise," although "not enough." Both reports condemned the continued referral of civilians to military courts and the "significantly large number of death sentences which reached 85 in 1998."

One way of improving the observance of human rights standards by the security bodies, suggested EOHR secretary-general, Hafez Abu Se'da, was to include human rights courses in the curriculum of the police academies. But this has already been done, Naila Gabr, director of the human rights desk at the Foreign Ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Responding to the charges made by the two reports, Gabr said that "the notion and concepts of human rights have been inserted in basic curricula. We've also succeeded in setting up courses for people in the field including [the staff of] the prosecutor general's newly established human rights bureau. We also did the same thing with the police academy."

Human rights activists, Gabr said, have concentrated their efforts primarily on the political aspect of human rights, focusing on "criticising and monitoring activities, rather than on education and raising awareness." This is why the notions and standards of human rights have not been disseminated fully, explained Gabr.

As for the human rights abuses which the two reports claimed were committed by state security bodies during 1998, Gabr insisted that such violations had been "minimal". "I am not saying that we are the best country in the world in terms of respect for human rights, but things are improving. Nobody accepts human rights violations. If there is proof of violation, the prosecutor opens an investigation and it can go to court. We have such cases and there are people who have received compensation for being tortured. Despite everything, we are trying to improve the situation [until we reach] the standards we aspire to."

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