Human Rights Defender in Egypt: Ahmed Seif El-Islam

Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, a 57-year-old Egyptian lawyer, recounted to Amnesty International how he was arrested and tortured by State Security Investigations (SSI) officers in 1983 for his involvement in the socialist movement. Ever since, Ahmed has dedicated his life to the fight against torture in Egypt. In 1989, soon after he was released after serving five years in prison, Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad involved himself in some of the most important human rights-related cases in the country.

“Of course when I became more involved in human rights, I found it has a much wider scope than torture, though all of it arises from the original basic rule, which the UDHR also upholds, and that is respect for human dignity. All that violates human dignity is an abuse to human rights.” he told Amnesty International over the phone.

In 1999, Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad founded with other human rights defenders the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC). They named it after Hisham Mubarak, an Egyptian human rights lawyer who in 1994 decided to focus on providing legal assistance to victims of human rights violations.

The HMLC provides advice and other support to victims and survivors of torture and other human rights violations, seeks to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice and works with other civil society organizations to achieve the abolition of laws which undermine human rights and contradict the human rights principles enshrined in Egypt’s Constitution.

In 2006, Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad was one of the defence lawyers for Karim Amer. The first Egyptian blogger to face criminal charges for publishing on the internet material that the authorities deemed critical of Egypt’s President and Islam, Karim Amer was convicted and jailed for four years.

Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad also acted as part of the legal defence team for 15 people charged with terrorism-related offences in connection with bomb attacks in October 2004 in Taba and other places in the Sinai Peninsula. He had travelled to the area after the authorities carried out hundreds of arrests in the wake of the bombings.

He and other human rights defenders went to investigate allegations of torture and other serious abuses against detainees by Egyptian security forces. He unreservedly condemned the wave of bomb attacks, but did not consider that these provided any justification for torture or other human rights violations by the state authorities.

In the event, despite his and others’ efforts, the 15 people charged with involvement in the bomb attacks were tried before the (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court (ESSSC, a special court established under Egypt’s long running state of emergency) in Ismailia and convicted on the basis of “confessions” that they allege were obtained from them under torture.

Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad also assisted in the legal defence of 52 men accused, in the so-called Queen Boat Case in 2001, on account of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. The men were accused of “habitual practice of debauchery”, which is used to criminalize consensual same sex relations between adults in private.

Currently, Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad is one of the defence lawyers for 49 people who are being tried before the ESSSC in Tanta, north of Cairo, for alleged involvement in popular protests on 6 April 2008 in support of industrial action by textile workers in the city of Mahalla and which were marred by violence. The main prosecution evidence is confessions which the defendants allege were extracted under torture when they were held incommunicado in pre-trial detention. The verdict is due on 15 December 2008. If convicted, some defendants could be imprisoned for up to 15 years.

Ahmed Seif El Islam Hamad sees torture as “a form of cancer that can eat up a country’s youth and stifle its ability to change, criticize, reform and rebel.” Yet, despite this, he says he is amazed and heartened by the increasing number of young people who are keen to become involved in the human rights movement, and by their energy, capacity and enthusiasm to learn.

Referring to the Mahalla trial he expresses pride in being a member of a team which includes more than 20 young lawyers who are addressing the court for the first time in a case of major public importance. “I believe that this is the thing I am happy with most: to hear our young colleagues address the court for the first time in the defence of the public. Regardless of the verdict this case will receive, I think we have won, and I feel we have made a great achievement”, he added.