A Parallel Justice System
The Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), a special branch of the Public Prosecution responsible for prosecuting crimes that relate to “state security”, has an expanding role in Egypt’s justice system. The authorities justify this as a response to violent attacks by armed groups in the country. However, Amnesty International’s research demonstrates how it functions as a tool of repression by misusing recently enacted counter-terrorism legislation to detain individuals for acts that should not even be criminalized, such as peacefully expressing critical views of the authorities, engaging in human rights work or waving a rainbow flag.
The growing role of the SSSP, along with the related use of a special police force, the National Security Agency (NSA), and special courts, also points to the emergence of what can be described as a parallel justice system. This comes in a context where a state of emergency is renewed continuously by President Abdelfattah al-Sisi. Since he took over power in 2013, the human rights situation in Egypt has deteriorated. The authorities have arbitrarily detained thousands, prosecuted hundreds in unfair trials, leading in many cases to death sentences, repressed protests and clamped down on civil society.
The hand of prompt justice is shackled by laws.
Supreme State Security Prosecution
Established in 1953, the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) is responsible for investigating and prosecuting a wide range of activities that could constitute threats to “state security”. Unusually, its prosecutors have powers that are usually reserved for judges when it comes to detaining suspects. The SSSP works in tandem with the NSA, a specialized police agency which conducts investigations, either initiating them itself or following SSSP instructions. Over the past two decades, the percentage of prosecutors who were educated at the Police Academy or who had previously served in the Ministry of Interior, including at the NSA, has grown significantly. Several prosecutors at the SSSP are former NSA officers; others are relatives of President al-Sisi and other top government officials. Since 2013, the numbers of those detained by the SSSP pending investigation has increased markedly.
Violations of fair trial guarantees
Amnesty International found that the SSSP is responsible, on a significant scale, for arbitrary detention on the basis of the misuse of vague national security legislations. Although most individuals whose cases it documented were detained pending investigation for “membership in” or “aiding” “terrorist” or “banned groups”, the actual reason for their detention seemed to be their peaceful participation in protests, public statements they had made, such as posts on social media criticizing the President, or their political or human rights activities or backgrounds. Prosecutors based accusations against suspects mainly on NSA investigations case files, according to interviewees, even though Egypt’s highest court has ruled that, on their own, they do not constitute “evidence”.
Amnesty International’s research showed that suspects are being systematically denied the right to effective legal representation. An analysis of documented cases revealed that suspects are never informed of their rights by either the police or the SSSP. Further, 60 victims said they were subjected to coercive methods at the SSSP, including by being blindfolded until reaching a prosecutor, subjected to verbal insults and derogatory comments that amounted to ill-treatment and threatened with being returned to the NSA, which is notorious for torturing detainees and interrogating them afterwards.
Amnesty International found that SSSP prosecutors systematically order suspects to be detained after questioning and repeatedly renew their detention every 15 days up to the maximum period available to them, 150 days. They then keep suspects in detention through requests to judges to renew it. The SSSP has the power to release them at any time, but invariably chooses not to do so.
Defence lawyers told Amnesty International that release orders issued by judges are implemented only following an “NSA approval”. When the NSA does not give this “approval”, the detainee may find themselves added as a suspect to a new or existing SSSP case or even subjected to enforced disappearance.
The SSSP limits judicial review and oversight of detention orders. Amnesty International found that it regularly prevented defendants from appealing against detention orders, in violation of their rights under Egyptian and international law.
Permanent State of Exception: the Video
This is the experience of many who have undergone an interrogation at the Supreme State Security Prosecution
Complicity in police violations
Amnesty International found that SSSP prosecutors were complicit in enforced disappearance and torture and other ill-treatment by systematically neglecting to investigate allegations of such practices by Egyptian police, particularly the NSA, and admitting confessions extracted under torture as evidence in trials. In some cases, such evidence led to defendants being sentenced to death and executed.
The lack of investigations into allegations of enforced disappearances is evident in official documents as well. According to the files of five judicial cases seen by Amnesty International, 339 of the 381 defendants who were in custody told prosecutors that they were subjected to enforced disappearances, but prosecutors took no action to investigate NSA officers for these allegations.
Information gathered by Amnesty International indicated that 46 of the 138 individuals whose cases it documented were subjected to torture or other ill-treatment in police custody, particularly in NSA detention. The most common methods of torture reported were the application of electricity to parts of the body, beating and suspension by the limbs. In three cases, victims reported that male doctors forced them to undergo forced anal tests or a sex determination test. In three other cases, detainees said that NSA officers had threatened them with rape. In only one case did the SSSP refer a detainee alleging torture to the Forensic Medical Authority. Further, to Amnesty International’s knowledge, SSSP prosecutors have not investigated a single police officer for such abuse.
Hostile environment for lawyers
Lawyers representing individuals prosecuted by the SSSP work in a hostile work environment, which undermines detainees’ right to an effective defence. Of the 29 lawyers Amnesty International interviewed, 17 reported that they had decided to stop working on SSSP cases because they feared arrest and prosecution, threats and harassment.
Among the 138 cases that Amnesty International documented, 17 lawyers – 14 men and three women – have been arrested and prosecuted by the SSSP since September 2017. In at least nine cases, their prosecution appears to be in response to their work representing clients before the SSSP. The remaining eight were prosecuted because of their legitimate political activities.
Thirteen lawyers with whom Amnesty International spoke said they had been threatened or harassed during their work representing clients in front of the SSSP, either by prosecutors or by police officers operating there. Some reported being threatened by policemen at the SSSP with prosecution in SSSP cases because they were insisting on providing effective legal representation. Three female lawyers said they experienced demeaning comments, some with sexual connotations, by prosecutors, such as on their appearance and choice of clothes.
PRISONERS OF CONSCIENCE PROSECUTED BY THE SSSP
Ramy Shaath is a political activist who has played an instrumental role in co-founding several secular political movements in Egypt. He is also the co-founder of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in Egypt and has been its Egypt coordinator since 2015. As part of his activism, Ramy raises public awareness about Palestinians’ rights and has been vocal in the media in denouncing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The Egyptian authorities have been harassing Ramy for years because of his political activism. More recently, he was detained on 5 July 2019 on trumped-up charges as part of a case known as “Hope cell” which involves at least 105 individuals, many of whom are also detained.
Alaa Abed El-Fattah is a political activist and software engineer who rose to prominence during the 2011 uprising. Security forces re-arrested him on 29 September on charges of spreading false news and joining an illegal organization. Alaa had already served an unjust five-year prison sentence for participating in a peaceful protest in 2013, and he was required to spend 12 hours every night at a police station for five years upon his release.
Esraa Abdelfatah is one of the prominent human rights defenders who have been rounded up since the outbreak of 20 September's protests. She was also among the HRDs who were banned from travel in relation to the NGO foreign funding case known as “Case 173”. On 12 October, she was abducted from her car before being taken to an undisclosed place of detention, managed by the National Security Agency (NSA) where she was tortured by officers who beat her, attempted to strangle her and forced her to stand for nearly eight hours.
Zyad el-Elaimy is a former parliamentarian and human rights lawyer. He was arbitrarily detained on 25 June 2019 in a known as “Hope case” over charges that relate to his peaceful political activities. His arrest is directly related to a coalition's plans to unite secular parties ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in April-May 2020.
Hoda Abdelmoniem is a lawyer at the Egyptian Cassation and Supreme Constitutional Courts, as well as a former member of the National Council for Human Rights and of the Egyptian Bar Association. Since 2015, Hoda has been documenting human rights violations, including cases of enforced disappearances. Amnesty International believes that Hoda’s activism, as well as her being a member of the defense team in several human rights cases, are the reasons behind her arbitrarily arrest and detention since 1 November 2018.
Mohamed el-Baqer is a human rights lawyer and director of the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms. On 29 September, he was arrested in the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) building while he was representing detained political activist Alaa Abdelfattah on the same unfounded charges as his client. He is a prisoner of conscience who is detained solely for his work defending victims of human rights violations.
Mahienour el-Masry is a prominent human rights lawyer and political activist. She is committed to defending the rights of workers, women and refugees. On 22 September 2019, security officers in plainclothes arrested her and bundled her into a minivan, as she left the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) building in Cairo. An SSSP prosecutor later questioned Mahienour el-Masry on unfounded charges in a case related to the March 2019 anti-government protests. She is still detained solely for her peaceful work defending victims of human rights violations.
Ibrahim Ezz El-Din is a 26-year-old researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), where he focuses on the right to housing. He has been investigating Egypt’s record of ensuring that everyone has access to safe and affordable housing, documenting forced evictions and Egypt’s urban planning policies. On the night of 11 June 2019, plain clothed police took Ibrahim from the street near his home in Cairo. His family and lawyers enquired about him at the police station, but the authorities denied that he is in their custody and denied that he was detained at all.
Asmaa Dabees is a women human rights defender and a feminist activist. On 26 September 2019, she was kidnapped by security officers in plainclothes from a cafe in Damanhour, Egypt in the midst of a major crackdown following 20 September protests. She was forcibly disappeared for five days before appearing in front of a prosecutor who ordered her 15-days detention that has constantly renewed.
Egypt’s Public Prosecutor should ensure that individuals being investigated by the SSSP are afforded fair trial guarantees. They must be able to meet with lawyers of their choice ahead of interrogations; have access to NSA investigation case files and any other documents relating to their case; and be able to challenge the lawfulness of their detention at all times before an ordinary judge. The Public Prosecutor should also ensure that lawyers are protected from threats and reprisals and that all lawyers detained solely for carrying out their work are released.
At the same time, the Public Prosecutor should open an independent commission of inquiry into the role of the SSSP in arbitrary detention, violations of fair trial guarantees and complicity in enforced disappearances and torture. The “assumption of judicial powers” by SSSP prosecutors should be ended and any pre-trial detention decisions should be taken by a judge. Allegations of violations by officials, including NSA officers, should be independently investigated and those responsible held accountable in the context of a fair trial. All those detained for peacefully expressing their opinions or for carrying out human rights or journalistic work should be immediately and unconditionally released; other detainees should be brought to trial promptly before a fair and impartial tribunal, or released.
Egypt’s President should institute a system of independent national monitoring of all places of detention, including those run by the NSA. He should also ensure that accurate figures are published on the number of detainees in Egypt.