Egypt: Release prisoners of conscience and other prisoners at risk amid coronavirus outbreak

Amid rising fears over the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Egypt’s overcrowded prisons, the Egyptian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all activists and human rights defenders detained solely for peacefully expressing their views, Amnesty International said today.

The authorities should also consider releasing pre-trial detainees and detainees who are especially vulnerable to the disease including those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly as a means to reduce the prison population and prevent harm. They should also consider adopting non-custodial measures for people accused of non-violent offences.

“Egypt’s authorities should be prompted by the risk of COVID-19 spreading in prisons to fulfil their international obligations and release the thousands of activists, human rights defenders, journalists and peaceful critics held simply for expressing their opinions or peacefully protesting. These individuals should not even be in prison in the first place,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“In addition, given well-documented concerns that Egyptian prisons are overcrowded and suffer from poor health care and hygiene and sanitation conditions, the authorities should consider releasing detainees held in pre-trial detention, as well detainees who are especially vulnerable to the disease, such as those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly. The authorities have a duty to ensure that all those in custody are provided with adequate medical care.”

The authorities have a duty to ensure that all those in custody are provided with adequate medical care
Philip Luther

National campaign groups, such as Free Zyad Elelaimy and Free Ramy Shaath, are also calling for the release of detainees in pre-trial detention, people detained for non-violent offences and prisoners with health conditions.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, prison populations are particularly exposed to infectious diseases like COVID-19 and conditions of detention can exacerbate the risks. These include the risk of higher transmission rates, especially in overcrowded prisons and when health systems are of poorer quality than in the community. Amnesty International has previously documented the inhumane conditions of detention in several prisons, including the lack of adequate medical care.

On 18 March, four women – Laila Soueif, Ahdaf Soueif, Mona Seif and Rabab el-Mahdi – were arrested by security services in front of the Cabinet building in Cairo. A prosecutor accused them of “inciting a protest”, “disseminating false information” and “possession of material disseminating false information”. He then ordered their release pending investigations on bail of 5,000 Egyptian pounds (around US$320). Although they made the bail payment the same day, they remained in detention overnight without legal grounds. On 19 March, the authorities transferred Laila Soueif to the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) building in New Cairo, where a prosecutor ordered her release on bail of 3,000 Egyptian pounds (around US$190). All four were released that night.

In addition, given well-documented concerns that Egyptian prisons are overcrowded and suffer from poor health care and hygiene and sanitation conditions, the authorities should consider releasing detainees held in pre-trial detention, as well detainees who are especially vulnerable to the disease, such as those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly
Philip Luther

On the same day, the SSSP also ordered the release of 15 politicians and activists who had been arbitrarily detained for months.

Thousands of people have been arbitrarily detained over the past six years in long-term pre-trial detention, which frequently exceeds the two-year legal limit under Egyptian law. Amnesty International recently published a report on the SSSP showing how the Egyptian authorities have been using pre-trial detention as an alternative to administrative detention in order to detain thousands of opponents and critics.

Under international human rights law, pre-trial detention must be an exceptional measure used only as a last resort when there is substantial risk of flight, harm to others or interference with the evidence or investigation that cannot be allayed by other means. The presumption of release pending trial is based on the presumption of innocence, which is enshrined in international law and recognized in the Egyptian constitution.  

COVID-19 AND HUMAN RIGHTS

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