Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Awaiting release

The legal status of hundreds of young prisoners remanded in custody is to be reexamined, writes Mona El-Nahhas

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 27 October, during the final session of the three-day National Youth Conference held in Sharm Al-Sheikh, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said a committee would be formed to review the status of young people held in detention.

The committee, which will report directly to the president’s office, is expected to prepare a list of detainees — the majority held on charges stemming from their political activism — whose cases are to be reviewed.

The main criterion for selecting names is non-involvement in violent acts, something legal experts say will be difficult to prove.  The list will be submitted to the presidency within two weeks.

Osama Al-Ghazali Harb has been tipped as chair of the committee which is expected to include representatives from NGOs and parliament.

Calls to release young prisoners who have not been involved in acts of violence have been voiced for months now by legal activists and rights groups. Many lists have been compiled and forwarded to the presidency. 

Ahead of the National Youth Conference many questioned how such an event could be held at a time when hundreds of young people are behind bars simply for expressing their opinions. Harb led calls during the conference for the release of young detainees not involved in violence.

Commentators see the presidency’s quick response to such demands as an attempt to signal that legitimate complaints are being listened to at a time of growing public anger over deteriorating living conditions. And that, they add, gives cause for optimism that this time the plight of young detainees will be taken seriously.

Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, the activist assigned the young detainees file during the conference, insists the presidency is keen on following through on the initiative.

On 30 October parliament's Human Rights Committee began to prepare its own list of prisoners it believes deserve a presidential pardon. The names will be reviewed by Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal before being submitted to the prisoners committee.

Chairman of the Press Syndicate Yehia Qallash says the syndicate is also preparing a list which will include the names of dozens of imprisoned journalists. Qallash said he was hopeful the recommendations of the conference would be implemented. 

The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) compiled a list of 600 young prisoners it believes should be released two months ago, says NCHR deputy chairman Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr.

"The list, which included the names of those serving sentences and others remanded pending investigations, was submitted to the presidency and the general prosecution. We asked for their release in line with earlier presidential promises. We received no answer.

On its Facebook page the Halt Forced Disappearances campaign said it would forward the names of hundreds of forcibly disappeared people to the national committee. Hopes for their release are slight given the Ministry of Interior denies the existence of forced disappearances.

Legal experts warn that high hopes should not be attached to the presidential initiative.

Talking to Al-Ahram on Friday legal expert Nasser Amin predicted that “no prisoners will be released" and argued that the creation of the committee was a diversionary tactic.

"Everyone knows who deserves a presidential pardon. And the president has wide ranging prerogatives that allow him to grant pardons to those already serving sentences and to direct the general prosecution to drop charges against those in pre-trial detention,”  says Amin.

Rights lawyer Khaled Ali agrees. "The state already has a number of tools which allow it to address the problem. Abolition of the protest law, or at least of its penalising articles, would provide legal cover for the release of young detainees. Such a move would allow the prosecution to drop cases against those charged under the infamous law."

The Supreme Constitutional Court is due to rule on the constitutionality of two articles of the protest law next month.

In response to the Sharm El-Sheikh conference’s recommendations the government announced it would soon send amendments to the controversial protest law to the House of Representatives.

Legal activist Tarek Al-Awadi questions the sincerity of the latest initiative to release detainees.

"This is not the first time we have heard presidential promises or news about the preparation of lists," he says.

He points out that "a presidential pardon can be granted only to prisoners against whom final sentences have been passed”.

"Yet instead of referring to this category of prisoners the initiative talked about detainees remanded in custody pending investigation, a group which the president has no authority to pardon. For the president to order their release would be viewed as interference in the work of the prosecution authorities.”

Bahaaeddin Abu Shoka, head of parliament's Legislative Committee, argues that releasing detainees still being investigated by the prosecution will require new legislation that regulates the conditions of any reconciliation. Abu Shoka said he would willingly support the necessary legal changes "so long as they serve the public interest".  

Sources at the Interior Ministry say it is ready to implement any presidential decrees granting pardons to prisoners against whom final sentences were passed.

"As to defendants still subject to prosecution investigations the executive authority has nothing to do with them,” said one source adding that there were no political detainees in Egypt.

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