Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

New laws, faster trials

Government assurances that new anti-terror legislation will strike a balance between national security and public freedoms fail to dampen fears among opposition parties and media activists that the laws will come at the expense of civil rights. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

“A tougher anti-terrorism law has been on the government’s agenda since 2011,” says Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Transitional Justice Ibrahim Al-Heneidi, “Suggestions that a draft has been rushed through in reaction to the assassination of Egypt’s Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat on 29 June and last week’s terror attacks in Northern Sinai are wide of the mark.”

Al-Heneidi does concede the process of implementing the law “has been accelerated” in the wake of recent events.   

“The new law will stem the tide of funding going to terrorist groups which target police and army personnel. It will also widen the definitions of what constitutes a terrorist crime.”

“The debate on how to draft stricter anti-terrorism legislation which will dry up sources of funding for terrorist actions without infringing on public freedoms has been ongoing since 2011,” said Al-Heneidi.

 “Following the removal of Mohamed Morsi in July, 2013 and the proliferation of terrorist organisations in the Middle East, the need for a new law became more pressing.”

“The draft law will impose the death penalty on anyone found guilty of funding a terrorist organisation,” said Al-Heneidi.  

Egypt designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group in December 2013.

The law, explained Al-Heneidi, will criminalise “funding in cash or in kind, including national or foreign currency, financial or commercial securities, bonds, documents and papers in digital and electronic form”.

Article 3 of the draft defines the funding of terrorism as “the collection or the acquisition or the supply of money, weapons, ammunition, explosives or information with the objective of carrying out a terrorist crime or to create a safe haven for terrorists.” Al-Heneidi said that the “law will also stipulate those found guilty of forming or running or leading a terrorist organisation receive capital sentences or to life in prison.”

Article 2 of the new law, says Al-Heneidi, defines a terrorist crime as one seeking to cause disorder by the use of force, violence, threats or intimidation.

“Terrorist crimes jeopardise the safety of society, expose citizens to harm and expose the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution to danger. These crimes seek to disrupt national unity, social peace and national security, destroy antiquities and cause harm to the environment, natural resources, and public and private property.”

A number of political parties and human rights activists say that while they recognise the dangers posed by the new wave of terrorism facing Egypt they are concerned that the new law will infringe on public liberties.

The draft anti-terror law was approved by the Higher Council for Judges on Sunday. The following day the Press Syndicate issued a statement warning that article 33 of the draft, which imposes two-year sentences for “reporting false information on terrorist attacks which contradicts official statements”, undermines press freedom.

According to the Press Syndicate the article was prompted by last week’s media coverage of terrorist attacks in North Sinai. Government officials criticised local media for toeing the line of pro-Brotherhood TV channel Al-Jazeera and repeating its claims that 70 security personnel had been killed. The army subsequently reported the death toll among soldiers at 17. During a surprise visit to North Sinai on Saturday President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said the militant attacks in North Sinai had been accompanied by a hostile media campaign that attempted to break the morale of the Egyptian army and people.

Article 33, says Al-Heneidi, means journalists can face imprisonment when four conditions are met. “The news they published must be false, it must be published to deliberately cause harm, it must contradict official statements and directly relate to a terrorist act.”

“The article was not drafted to intimidate journalists but to stem the flow of false information which can cause panic and spread chaos.”

The Press Syndicate, he added, has the right to object to any of the law’s articles.

“They can send us their suggestions for possible amendments and the points they have raised will be discussed at the cabinet’s plenary meeting on Wednesday.”

Some opposition figures warn that in its current form the draft law is unconstitutional.

Ahmed Al-Boraie, a former social solidarity minister and leading member of the Democratic Current electoral coalition, is concerned the law violates article 70 of the constitution which guarantees “all forms of media freedom”.

“The draft law also undermines article 71 which prohibits media censorship and custodial sentences for publication offences.”  

Former independent MP Shawki Al-Sayed stresses that anti-terror legislation is not unique to Egypt.

 “Following terrorist attacks in 2001 Western countries took draconian measures against terrorism. The US passed the Patriot Act which gave police and federal authorities sweeping powers to detain and spy on citizens without any concern for public freedom,” says Al-Sayed. “The Americans have even gone so far as to spy on world leaders such as Germany’s chancellor Angel Merkel, as was revealed by the Wikileaks documents.”

Al-Sayed also points out that the UK enacted tough anti-terror laws.

“The new legislation granted the authorities extensive powers that infringes on public freedoms. The authorities can bar British citizens from travelling abroad, particularly to Syria, Iraq and Turkey, and Internet service providers are obliged to provide the authorities with communication data.”

“Countries which regularly preach to the Arab world about human rights do not hesitate to trample on these rights when it comes to safeguarding their own national security against terrorism.”

“In their coverage of last week’s terrorist attacks in Sinai much of the local media fell short of exercising professionalism while foreign organisations like Al-Jazeera and some Western news agencies were clearly following a political agenda,” said Al-Sayed.”

“The new anti-terror law does not pose any risks to public freedom or contravene the constitution, as some local media and politicians are arguing. The only problem I can see is that these people refuse to show the kind of concern for national security that is necessary.”

Al-Heneidi revealed the new 54-article law is to be accompanied by changes to the Criminal Procedures Law which will shorten the appeals process for convicted terrorists.

“Under the current law defendants are allowed to appeal verdicts twice. The changes being proposed would limit them to a single appeal,” said Al-Heneidi. “If an appeal by a defendant is accepted, then he or she will face a retrial t before the Court of Cassation.”

The Court of Cassation is Egypt’s highest judicial authority and its rulings are final. According to Al-Heneidi the legal changes will ensure that appeals in terrorism cases will take priority.

“Appeals submitted by defendants convicted under the new terrorism law will be heard the Court of Cassation within three months,” said Al-Heneidi.

“Rather than take five years, as happens now, trials of defendants being prosecuted for terrorist crimes should be completed, with appeal, with 18 months,” says Al-Sayed.

“Given the proliferation of terrorism it is essential that the trial process be streamlined while still guaranteeing that defendants are granted a fair trial.”

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