New counter-terrorism legislation set to be approved by Egypt’s president is deeply flawed and must be scrapped or fundamentally revised, Amnesty International said.
Two draft anti-terror laws, which were sent to interim president Adly Mansour on 3 April and could be signed off at any time, would give the Egyptian authorities increased powers to muzzle freedom of expression and imprison opponents and critics.
“These deeply flawed draft laws can be abused because they include an increasingly broad and vague definition of terrorism,” warned Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“This draft legislation also violates the right to free expression, undermines safeguards against torture and arbitrary detention, and expands the scope of application of the death penalty.”
Egypt has seen a rise in deadly armed attacks, mainly targeting government buildings, army checkpoints and other security institutions and personnel, since the removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency on 3 July 2013, particularly in the restive North Sinai region.
“The Egyptian government has a duty to prevent, investigate and punish violent attacks, but in doing so it must abide by its obligations under international law,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
In the draft laws sent to Interim President Adly Mansour, the existing definition of terrorism is expanded to include actions aimed at “damaging national unity, natural resources, monuments… hindering the work of judicial bodies… regional and international bodies in Egypt, and diplomatic and consular missions”.
It is also extended to “any behaviour or preparation with the purpose of damaging communications, or information systems, or financial and banking systems, or the national economy”.
“The problem with these vaguely worded ‘terrorist offences’ is that they potentially allow the authorities to bring a terrorism case against virtually any peaceful activist,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The definition of terrorism potentially criminalizes strikes and peaceful demonstrations in schools, universities and those emanating from mosques, under the pretext that such legitimate activities harm national unity, hamper the work of national institutions and damage the economy.”
Many marches since the “25 January Revolution” are organized following prayers, including those by supporters of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi.
The draft legislation widens the scope for use of the death penalty, imposing it even where “terrorist” acts committed do not cause loss of life. This includes the crimes of founding, managing or administering a terrorist group.
“Rather than reducing the number of capital crimes, the Egyptian authorities are expanding them to include crimes which do not cause a loss of life. Disturbingly, this could feasibly lead to even more mass death sentences,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Repressive new laws
Another proposed change is to allow security forces to hold detainees for longer – 72 hours, which could be extended for another seven days – in breach of international law and Egypt’s recently adopted constitution, which states anyone arrested should be referred to a prosecutor within 24 hours.
The period after arrest is the time detainees are most vulnerable to torture and other ill-treatment, Amnesty International’s research has shown.
The draft laws also do not explicitly state that “confessions” extracted under torture must be excluded from evidence.
The laws impose penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment for insulting verbally a public employee, member of the security forces or any person in charge of a public service while performing their duty – in violation of the right to freedom of expression.
A further law change gives the authorities more powers to check bank accounts and monitor phone calls of persons or associations without the approval of an independent authority, such as the judiciary. This could be routinely used to crack down on personal freedoms and civil society organizations.
Meanwhile, the proposed laws are silent on the state’s duty to recognize and respect the human rights of victims of terrorist acts, such as Coptic Christians and other minority groups.
The draft laws also give the president the power to declare a state of emergency without seeking the approval of parliament.
This is a worrying echo of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, during which people were held without charge or trial – sometimes for decades – under Egypt’s emergency law.
“The draconian nature of this legislation, which flouts Egypt’s obligations, suggests that it will pave the way to further clamp down on civil society and government opponents and critics, rather than tackling the threat of terrorism,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The government should change course and adopt an approach that respects human rights and the rule of law.”
One of the two draft laws amends provisions of Egypt’s Penal Code related to terrorism, while the other deals with procedural provisions to combat terrorism and with international judicial cooperation.
Amnesty International is concerned by the overly broad and vague definition of terrorism offences in the proposed law, which extends the scope of what is considered a “terrorist” act, as defined in the Penal Code following the passage of Law 97 of 1992.
The definition currently includes any use of force or violence or threat or terrorization aimed at “undermining public order…delaying the implementation of constitutional provisions and laws”, “damaging buildings and public and private property”, and “preventing or obstructing public authorities, places of worship, or institutions or educational institutes” from carrying out their work.
Amnesty International has documented cases where peaceful protesters were arrested and detained over very vague charges, including delaying the application of the provisions of the constitution and laws, and obstructing national institutions from carrying out their work.
Among the offences that could lead to the death penalty in the draft laws are the “foundation, management or administration” of a “terrorist group”. The Muslim Brotherhood was labelled a terrorist group by the Egyptian authorities in December, but no factual evidence that it is engaged in terrorist attacks was provided. Fair trial safeguards in death penalty cases, which are required by international law, have frequently not been upheld in Egypt, including in cases of individuals suspected of terrorism-related activities.
Under the draft law, the Public Prosecutor – rather than an independent judge – can authorise surveillance, including checking bank accounts and monitoring phone calls.
Without an independent check on this power, it could readily be abused by the authorities to harass and intimidate non-governmental organizations, such as human rights groups, involved in work that criticises the government.
The draft laws also impose heavy penalties for acts that may be entirely peaceful, such as belonging to a group that has been labelled as terrorist, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Hundreds of supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi face this charge.
The law also puts aside Article 17 of the Penal Code, by which a judge can reduce a penalty for specific crime. Such a move would undermine the principle of equality before the law.