26 May 2010

Activists take action against emergency law

Egyptians protest against the emergency law
Egyptians protest against the emergency law
The Egyptian government's recent two-year renewal of the decades-old emergency law - with only minor changes - has stoked the creation of a "national committee to build a future without emergency," reports the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). According to Human Rights Watch and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), President Hosni Mubarak, during his 2005 election campaign, promised to replace the emergency law with new counter-terrorism legislation. But since then his government has renewed the emergency law three times, most recently this month, and an anti-terrorism law has yet to be written in the books.

This time, officials have vowed to restrict the use of the emergency law to combat terrorism and drug-related crimes. But Human Rights Watch says officials continue to use the emergency law to detain people in cases that have nothing to do with terrorism and instead target political dissent.

The law has been used repeatedly against members of the Muslim Brotherhood, activists and bloggers. They include Hany Nazeer, who posted a link on his blog to a controversial book that some considered insulting to Islam, as well as Mus'ad Abul Fagr, a novelist and rights defender who had been outspokenly critical of the violation of the rights of Sinai Bedouin. Both have been detained under successive emergency law orders since 2008, points out Human Rights Watch.

And according to ANHRI, just last week eight activists were arrested in Damanhour for taking part in a meeting that called for the repeal of the emergency law among other democratic reforms in Egypt.

Under the emergency law, in place since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War except for an 18-month break in 1980, the government has the power to prohibit demonstrations, censor newspapers, monitor personal communications, and detain people indefinitely without charge. According to EOHR, human rights groups say at least 10,000 people currently remain in long-term detention without charge or trial under the emergency law.

With its most recent announcement, the government says the law is subject to judicial review. But officials frequently disregard court orders to release detainees, and the Interior Ministry is empowered under the law to renew detention orders on its own authority, reports Human Rights Watch.

The government also announced it would cease using the emergency law to monitor communications. But Human Rights Watch points out that the 2007 amendments to the constitution already gave it the power to monitor communications outside of the emergency law and without judicial warrant in terrorism-designated cases.

According to EOHR, the newly formed committee will include members of political parties and civil society organisations, and will pressure the government to adhere to recommendations in line with the UN Human Rights Council's. The committee is demanding that all prisoners jailed under the emergency law be released immediately, and that the government restrict emergency rule to times of war and natural disaster.

The committee is also calling for a provision to be made for the right to a fair trial, which would mean abolishing trials of civilians before military tribunals and special state security courts, which lack basic due process protections.

How the committee will fare remains to be seen. Government officials are continuing in their campaign to target critical activists and civil society organisations through the emergency law and other legislation. ANHRI's own Gamal Eid is currently facing politically motivated charges.

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