Egypt: Release 24 Nubian activists detained after protest calling for respect of their cultural rights

Egyptian authorities should immediately release 24 Nubian activists arrested after the police violently dispersed their peaceful protest in Aswan governorate on 3 September, Amnesty International said today. The detained activists, who had been protesting in support of the Nubian Indigenous people’s cultural rights and to call for their return to their homelands in the south of Egypt, are due to appear in court tomorrow, 13 September.

Successive Egyptian governments have forcibly displaced Nubians from their traditional lands for development projects, posing a threat to the preservation of their cultural, historical and linguistic identity. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, Nubian activists grew more organized and vocal in articulating their demands. Their lobbying resulted in a new provision in the 2014 Egyptian constitution that recognizes their right to return.

“Egyptian authorities have long since marginalized Nubians, ignoring their demands to return to their historical lands and treating Nubian activism as suspicious on security grounds,” said Najia Bounaim Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director. 

“Instead of flagrantly flouting Nubians’ rights to freedom of expression and assembly by continuing to detain them over their peaceful protest, the authorities must release these 24 activists from custody immediately.”

Instead of flagrantly flouting Nubians’ rights to freedom of expression and assembly by continuing to detain them over their peaceful protest, the authorities must release these 24 activists from custody immediately
Najia Bounaim, Campaigns Director for North Africa at Amnesty International

Activists from the Nubian community in Aswan called for a protest under the slogan of “the Nubian Assembly Day” on 3 September. The group sang Nubian songs during the protest and called for the implementation of the right to return to their historical lands, following waves of internal displacement between 1912 and 1964. Protesters also called on the authorities to repeal a presidential decree (number 444 of 2014) that classified 16 villages on traditional Nubian lands as military zones and prohibited residents from living there.

Protesters had just gathered and marched 500 meters in al-Guzzayra square in downtown Aswan when security forces surrounded them, beating male and female participants. Police arrested 24 of the men and took them to al-Shalal Security Forces camp in Aswan. They were not allowed access to their families or lawyers. The day after their arrest, prosecutors arrived at the camp and interrogated the men in the absence of their lawyers. Prosecutors ordered their detention for four days on charges of “participating in an unauthorized protest” and “possessing publications harmful to national unity and public safety”, the latter in reference to flyers and banners the activists had carried.

A judge was due to review the detention order on 6 September, but the police failed to bring the 24 activists to the court and the session was adjourned to 13 September. In protest at the postponement, the detainees announced a hunger strike from 6 to 9 September. On 7 September the detainees were prevented from receiving visits from family members and lawyers.

Nubian activist Ayat Osman told Amnesty International that her parents, along with other families of detainees, had managed to obtain a permit from prosecutors to visit their detained relatives. On 7 September, when they arrived at the detention facility, to visit her brother, however, a police officer refused to allow them to visit him and ordered them to leave.   

This is not the first time security forces have dispersed peaceful gatherings of Nubian activists. On 19 November 2016, police stopped a peaceful march in support of the community’s human rights and encircled protesters for several hours without food or water until they were forced to leave.

For years, the authorities have dispossessed Nubians, displacing them from their historical lands and interfering in their enjoyment of their cultural rights
Najia Bounaim, Campaigns Director for North Africa at Amnesty International

The displacement of Nubians has had huge socio-economic consequences for the community. It has meant they are often no longer able to work in agriculture as they were forcibly moved from their old villages on the banks of Nile River to desert areas that lacked the necessary water and fertile soil.

The Egyptian Ministry of Education has also not allowed schools in the far south of Egypt to teach the Nubian language despite the demands of Nubian residents. Nubian rights activist Fatma Emam told Amnesty International that the forced assimilation of Nubians in Arabic speaking communities has prevented the community from effectively maintaining the language.

The 2014 Egyptian constitution recognizes the Nubian Indigenous people’s “right to return” to their original lands. Article 236 obliges the government to design an economic development plan for marginalized border areas, including Nuba near Egypt‘s southern borders. The provision also obliges the government to carry out projects to facilitate the return of Nubians to their original lands and their development. 

“For years, the authorities have dispossessed Nubians, displacing them from their historical lands and interfering in their enjoyment of their cultural rights. These practices and the continued reluctance of Egypt’s authorities to allow Nubians to return to their lands are contrary to the country’s own constitution as well as its international obligations,” said Najia Bounaim Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director.