The Egyptian authorities must immediately release Ezzat Ghoniem, founder of the human rights organization Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, and 13 others, all of whom are on trial on absurd charges stemming from their human rights work or peaceful dissent, Amnesty International said today, ahead of their verdict on 5 March.
The 14 individuals have been arbitrarily detained since 2018 and are being tried by an Emergency State Security Court (ESSC), which has involved gross violations of their right to a fair trial.
The defendants have been subjected to a litany of human rights violations, including enforced disappearance and torture or other ill-treatment. If convicted, they face prison terms ranging from five years to life behind bars.
“This politically motivated trial by an emergency court marks just the latest attempt by the Egyptian authorities to silence this group of human rights defenders, lawyers and actual or perceived state critics. These 14 individuals have been detained simply for exercising their human rights. They should be immediately released and all charges against them dropped,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The Egyptian authorities have not stopped at crushing the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, which announced its closure in the aftermath of the arrests of its founder and associates. They have instead pursued a revenge spree targeting anyone deemed to be affiliated with the group and inflicting cruelty upon cruelty against them in detention, including by denying them family visits for over four years.”
The defendants include human rights lawyer Hoda Abdelmoniem, Aisha el-Shater, the daughter of a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, and her husband; lawyer Mohamed Abo Horeira.
Enforced disappearances and torture
The 14 defendants have been arbitrarily detained for over four years, with most arrested in a series of raids carried out by security forces between 30 October and 1 November 2018. Amnesty International found that all have been subjected to enforced disappearance for periods of up to three months, in which time the authorities refused to reveal their whereabouts to their families.
Security forces subjected 13 of the detainees to torture or ill-treatment while held at facilities controlled by the National Security Agency (NSA), including severe beatings, electric shocks, sexual violence, and threats to sexually assault or imprison their family members. During interrogations, security officers asked many of them about their alleged affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood and forced them to “confess” under torture.
This politically motivated trial by an emergency court marks just the latest attempt by the Egyptian authorities to silence this group of human rights defenders, lawyers and actual or perceived state critics.Philip Luther, Amnesty International
A number of the detainees made official complaints about their enforced disappearance and torture to Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) prosecutors, yet the allegations were not adequately investigated. Ibrahim Atta, one of the defendants, told prosecutors he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks, including to his testicles and tongue, suspended in contorted positions and denied food, water and access to a toilet for four days.
Even after their transfer from NSA-controlled facilities to regular prisons, the 14 defendants continued to suffer treatment that amounts to torture and other ill-treatment, such as prolonged solitary confinement. Authorities have denied them family visits throughout the duration of their detention. Only Hoda Abdelmoniem was allowed a single family visit, supervised by security agents, on one occasion in August 2022. Authorities have also deliberately denied Hoda Abdelmoniem and Aisha el-Shater access to adequate healthcare despite suffering from life-threatening conditions.
“All those suspected of being responsible for the torture and enforced disappearance of these defendants must be criminally investigated and if there is sufficient admissible evidence, prosecuted in fair trials,” said Philip Luther.
Grossly unfair trial
On 23 August 2021, the SSSP referred the 14 detainees and 17 others in their absence to trial in front of an ESSC. They were indicted on charges including joining, funding and supporting a terrorist group, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, labelled a terrorist organization by the Egyptian authorities.
Ezzat Ghoniem, Hoda Abdelmoniem, Aisha el-Shater, and Mohamed Abo Horeira were also charged with disseminating “false news” about human rights abuses by security forces through the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms’ Facebook Page.
Throughout the investigation and the trial, which began on 11 September, defendants were banned from speaking to their lawyers in private. Several were interrogated by SSSP prosecutors without their lawyers present.
The court hearings were held in secret in the Badr Prison Complex, around 70 kilometres east of Cairo. Observers, members of the public and relatives of defendants were banned from the hearings. Lawyers also said they were not permitted to access their clients’ case files during the investigation. They also said that the court relied on eyewitness testimonies by NSA officers, which were accepted without adequate cross-examination, and did not allow all defendants to speak in court.
Proceedings by ESSCs are activated when there is a state of emergency, the last of which ended in October 2021. The law, however, states that ongoing trials by ESSCs should continue even after the state of emergency has been lifted.
Proceedings in front of ESSCs are inherently unfair. Defendants are denied the right to appeal their convictions and sentences to a higher tribunal. Only the president retains the power to authorize, quash or commute sentences or to order a retrial.
The Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, a group which documented enforced disappearances and the use of the death penalty, and provided legal aid to victims of human rights violations, announced the suspension of its human rights work on 1 November 2018.