6 June 2012

Verdicts, lifting of emergency law not enough to guarantee free expression, say IFEX members

Thousands of Egyptians continue to rally daily in Tahrir Square to protest the verdicts handed down in the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak and other officials
Thousands of Egyptians continue to rally daily in Tahrir Square to protest the verdicts handed down in the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak and other officials
Mahmoud Abou Zied/DEMOTIX
This past week, Egypt's 30-year-old emergency law expired and former President Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the killing of protesters during Egypt's uprising. Yet the future for free expression in Egypt remains in doubt, say the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and other IFEX members.

On 31 May, the Emergency Law, in place since 1981, was lifted, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces refused to grant its renewal. In little over a year, since the overthrow of Mubarak's regime, more than 12,000 civilians have been brought before military courts on political charges such as "insulting the military."

While Freedom House hoped that the lifting of the law would "constitute a step forward in the consolidation of Egypt's transition to democracy and the rule of law," the organisation remained sceptical. It cited both the government's continued prosecution of employees of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the military trials of civilians as ongoing violations of the rule of law.

Meanwhile, thousands of Egyptians continue to rally in Tahrir Square to protest the verdicts handed down in the trial of Mubarak, his sons, the former Interior Minister, and senior ministry officials.

Hosni Mubarak and Habib al-Adly, the long-time Interior Minister, were convicted of complicity in the killing of hundreds of protesters last year, but six senior aides were acquitted. While their life sentences "send a powerful message to Egypt's future leaders that they are not above the law," says Human Rights Watch, the acquittal of his sons and of senior ministry officials "leaves police impunity intact and the victims still waiting for justice."

ANHRI denounced the verdicts, stating that justice was not served, largely due to the unwillingness of the prosecution to seriously investigate the abuses. Perhaps not a surprise, as Attorney-General Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, a controversial figure whose removal has been demanded in the past by revolutionary groups, is considered to be "one of Mubarak's men," says ANHRI.

This reminder of the presence of former regime officials has served as fodder for the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential campaign, who are now positioning their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as a revolutionary, in contrast to his opponent, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, according to Al Jazeera. The party has even gone on record stating that, if elected, Morsi will retry Mubarak.

But a bill regulating NGOs recently brought forward by the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, calls into question their commitment to free expression, says CIHRS. Despite bringing forward some tangible improvements in contrast to the previous NGO law, the bill has been criticised as "falling far short of complying with international standards to ensure the freedom and independence of the work of civil society."

The bill imposes broad restrictions, such as the preservation of "national unity," "public order" and "public morals", terms that were often used by the previous regime against critical NGOs and activists.

With the constitution yet to be established, and the powers of the President not having been defined, much remains in question for the future of free expression in the country.

In an effort to prevent the passage of legislation of this kind, and ensure that free expression and free information are guaranteed by future Egyptian governments, ARTICLE 19 urges the drafters of the constitution to "define freedom of expression broadly to include the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, and to cover all types of expression and modes of communication." See the full analysis and recommendations here.

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