Egypt: Court arbitrarily extends the pre-trial detention of over 1,600 defendants

The decisions by a “terrorism circuit” judges at the Cairo Criminal Court to extend – without respect for basic due process guarantees – the pre-trial detention of over 1,600 detainees, many of whom are prisoners of conscience, must be immediately overturned, Amnesty International said. The organization also called on the Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for peacefully exercising their rights.

The Egyptian authorities must immediately rescind the recent string of decisions to extend pre-trial detention and ensure that all those in this situation are able to challenge the legality of their detention and to communicate with their lawyers privately
Philip Luther

Judges issued these decisions between 4 and 6 May, without the presence of any of the defendants in court. Their lawyers were prevented from presenting their defence. The defendants have been held in prolonged pre-trial detention, in some cases reaching over two years, pending investigations by the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP).

“The Egyptian authorities must immediately rescind the recent string of decisions to extend pre-trial detention and ensure that all those in this situation are able to challenge the legality of their detention and to communicate with their lawyers privately,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Many should not have been detained in the first place, as they only ended up behind bars for peacefully exercising their rights. Others have been held for years in proceedings marred by serious breaches of international fair trial standards.”

The mass court orders came after a decision by the Cairo Appeals Court on 28 April which stipulated that courts could decide on the releasing or extending the detention of defendants, without the presence of defendants in courts.

Many should not have been detained in the first place, as they only ended up behind bars for peacefully exercising their rights.
Philip Luther

According to lawyers, one judge refused to hear concerns over the illegality of the decisions in light of Egyptian law or even note these concerns in court documents. During one of the hearings, he asked lawyers to nominate five among themselves to represent hundreds of defendants.

Legalizing arbitrary detention

On 3 May, “terrorism circuits” resumed detention extension hearings after stopping them on 16 March due to fears over the COVID-19 pandemic. Since mid-March, defendants in SSSP cases whose pre-trial detention orders had expired have been held without a legal basis. This week, “terrorism circuits” have issued retroactive decisions in a bid to legalize that period of pre-trial detention.

Indefinite pre-trial detention

Among the group, the court even extended the detention of some defendants beyond the absolute legal limit of two years set out in the Egyptian criminal procedures code.

On 6 May, a judge extended the detention of 25-year-old Moustafa Gamal for 45 days, despite his having been in pre-trial detention since March 2018, well over the two-year limit. He has been kept in detention solely because in 2015 he obtained a verification mark for the social media page of singer Ramy Essam, where a song titled “Balha”, satirizing Egyptian President Abdelfatah al-Sisi, was published three years later, which Moustafa Gamal played no part in its production.

Moustafa Gamal is the last person still detained pending investigation into a case related to the song following the recent death of 24-year-old filmmaker Shady Habash in Liman Tora prison; he had been held since March 2018 pending an investigation into his role in the production of the song. Shady Habash’s detention also exceeded the legal limit of two years at the time of his death. Amnesty International has previously found that the song does not include any incitement to hatred and is, therefore, protected under the right to freedom of expression, a fundamental human right.

Arbitrary pre-trial detention

Amnesty International has previously found that the Egyptian authorities have been routinely using prolonged and indefinite pre-trial detention to punish those perceived as political opponents, activists or human rights defenders.

the Egyptian authorities should be releasing those arbitrarily detained and consider releasing those at high risk detained in relation to minor non-violent offences. Instead the Egyptian authorities have chosen to add a façade of legality to what is clearly a case of mass summary detention decisions
Philip Luther

Among the defendants whose pre-trial detention was extended this week are human rights defenders, including Mohamed el-Baqer, who has been detained since 29 September 2019; lawyers and journalists Solafa Magdy and Hossam el-Sayed, detained since November 2019; and activist Alaa Abdelfatah, detained since September 2019. All of them have been detained pending investigations into unfounded charges that relate to their peaceful work.

Under international law, detention pending trial is a preventive measure aimed at averting further harm or obstruction of justice, rather than a punishment. It must not be used for improper purposes or constitute an abuse of power and must not last any longer than is necessary. Concerns about public health due to the COVID-19 pandemic cannot justify the complete erosion of fair trial rights.

“These measures represent a disproportionate response to the COVID-19 pandemic and undermine the right to liberty and fair trial. We call on the Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for peacefully expressing their opinions, defending human rights or participating in political life, and to ensure that all others held in pre-trial detention are able to challenge the legality of their detention or be released,” said Philip Luther.

“At a time where there are genuine concerns about the health and safety of prisoners amid the spread of COVID-19, the Egyptian authorities should be releasing those arbitrarily detained and consider releasing those at high risk detained in relation to minor non-violent offences. Instead the Egyptian authorities have chosen to add a façade of legality to what is clearly a case of mass summary detention decisions.” 

Background

Since 9 March, and due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Egyptian authorities have not allowed lawyers or families to communicate with their clients in prisons. Although some prisons have allowed inmates to send and receive letters, so far no prison has allowed inmates to communicate privately with their lawyers or families.