Egypt: Punitive probation measures latest tactic used to harass activists

Egyptian authorities are increasingly using arbitrary and excessive probation measures as a tactic to harass activists, said Amnesty International today. In some cases extreme conditions have been imposed, with activists released from prison forced to spend up to 12 hours a day in a police station.

Police probation in Egypt requires released prisoners and detainees to spend a certain number of hours at a police station on a daily or weekly basis. It is used either as an alternative to pre-trial detention or can be imposed as a supplementary penalty in addition to a prison sentence.

Amnesty International has documented at least 13 cases in which probation measures were excessive or were arbitrarily imposed against activists. In some cases probation orders paved the way for activists to be detained for a second time.

“The Egyptian authorities are punishing activists by imposing excessive and in some cases ludicrous probation conditions that infringe upon their basic rights, in some cases amounting to deprivation of liberty. Many of these individuals have been convicted or charged for peaceful activism and should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” said Najia Bounaim, Deputy Director for Campaigns at Amnesty International’s regional office in Tunis.

“Abuse of probation has become the latest tool at the disposal of the authorities to crush dissent. It is imperative that the Egyptian authorities lift all arbitrary probation measures and order the immediate and unconditional release of activists who have been detained or imprisoned solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression or peaceful assembly.” 

The Egyptian authorities are punishing activists by imposing excessive and in some cases ludicrous probation conditions that infringe upon their basic rights

Najia Bounaim, Deputy Director for Campaigns at Amnesty International's Tunis regional office

 Probation periods are ordered by judges during sentencing but they typically leave the determination of the number of hours individuals have to spend under probation as part of their sentence to the discretion of the police without any oversight.

Instead of requiring former prisoners and detainees to report to a police station, sign in and leave, Egyptian police end up detaining activists sentenced to probation terms for up to 12 hours every day in police stations. During this time, they are not allowed to leave the station, receive visits or communicate with any person other than the police.

Activists Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel who were released from custody after three years in prison for unauthorized protest, they are forced to spend 12 hours a day in police stations as part of the sentence handed down by an Egyptian court in December 2013. Due to these measures, they are unable to work, travel, study or freely express their opinions.

In at least four cases documented by Amnesty International activists under probation were detained for a second time even though they had not violated the conditions of their probation. 

Egyptian activists under police probation ( Clockwise from top left: Ahmed Kamal, Said Fathallah, Ahmed Maher and Khaled el-Ansary  ©Private
Egyptian activists under police probation ( Clockwise from top left: Ahmed Kamal, Said Fathallah, Ahmed Maher and Khaled el-Ansary ©Private

Under Egyptian law, (Law number 99 of 1945), individuals under police probation must spend the assigned probation hours at home so that they are present for any sudden visits by police officers responsible for monitoring their probation. However, the Probation Law gives the police broad authority to compel individuals to spend that time at the police station if they believe that monitoring the concerned person at home is difficult. The law also punishes those who violate the rules of probation with one year imprisonment, without specifying what exactly could amount to a breach of probation rules. International standards require that authorities explain, orally and in writing, the conditions governing non-custodial measures to those subjected to them, including their obligations and rights.

The broad powers and unchecked discretion given to the police has in some cases in effect transformed probation into detention, undermining the purpose of probation as a non-custodial measure.

Probation measures also facilitate further human rights violations, such as arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and arbitrary restrictions on the rights to freedom of movement and freedom of expression, against activists who have been targeted as part of the authorities’ crackdown on dissent. They also interfere in the enjoyment of other human rights, including the right to work, to education and to an adequate standard of living.

“Excessive and punitive probation measures are little more than another form of detention in disguise. They have left some activists unable to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and movement, even after they have finished serving their sentence. This is just another means for the Egyptian criminal justice system to silence and intimidate government critics,” said Najia Bounaim. 

According to Egyptian law, probation measures can be applied in connection with a broad range of offences, including provisions that criminalize the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. For example, defendants convicted under Articles 375bis of the Penal Code, which criminalizes vaguely worded offences, such as “terrorizing the public” or “harming public safety” must serve between one and five years in prison and an equal term of probation after release.

Prosecutors sometimes order probation as a condition for releasing individuals before their trial. In this case, the probation order determines the number of hours and days the released detainee must spend under police probation. The detaining authority has the right to terminate probation and to re-detain the defendant if the conditions and the rules of probation are violated. However, the law does not specify what might amount to such violations. The police have exploited this vagueness to justify re-detaining activists for failing to report to the police officer responsible for monitoring their probation during the determined hours. The ambiguity of the conditions also keeps activists under probation on their guard at all times and discourages them from involvement in public life and political activities.


Former prisoners

Prominent political activist and the April 6 youth movement leader, Ahmed Maher is among those placed on police probation. On 22 December 2013, a court sentenced Maher along with political activists Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma to three years imprisonment, three years police probation after release and fines of 50,000 Egyptian Pound (US$7,185) each, for taking part in an unauthorized protest. After having served three years behind bars, Maher turned himself into the al-Tagamu’ al-Khamis police station on 5 January 2017 to start his probation term. The police ordered him to spend 12 hours every night in the police station, between 6 pm and 6 am, meaning that he will spend an additional year and a half in police custody in addition to the three years he has already spent.

Maher’s lawyer told Amnesty International that he feels he is still in prison, that placing him under probation serves to restrict his movement and prevent him from involvement in any political activities or from expressing his opinions following release. He is unable to take care of his mother who suffers from an illness and requires medical treatment. He is not able to find a job or practice his profession as a civil engineer due to the 12 hours he spends every night at the police station.

Maher’s lawyer explained to Amnesty International that the verdict against him did not specify the terms of the probation and said that he believes that the police station received instructions from the National Security Agency to hold him for monitoring for 12 hours.The lawyer also said that for the first four days of his probation Maher was forced to sit in a dark corridor in front of a cell in the al-Tagamu’ al-Khamis police station without a bed, a blanket or lighting. He was subsequently moved to a small, cold room beneath a staircase measuring 1.5X2m. During the 12 hours he spends every night at the police station he is barred from using electronic devices including his mobile phone and is not allowed family visits. Some police officers also deny him the use of sanitation facilities. He asked to meet the director of the police station to complain, but his request was rejected.

Mohamed Adel, one of the leaders in the April 6 youth movement who was sentenced in the same case as Ahmed Maher to three years in prison and three years of probation, has also beenseverely impacted by abusive police probation. He was released from custody on 22 January 2017 after spending three years in jail and began his probation term. He spends 12 hours every day from 6pm to 6am in the Aga police station in the Dakahlia governorate. The police station banned him from using his mobile phone, watching TV or using any other devices during probation hours. His request for the probation to be lifted for one day to travel to Cairo was refused.

Activist Mohamed Adel ©Private
Activist Mohamed Adel ©Private

Adel told Amnesty International that he had to postpone his wedding given the length of his probation term which was unexpected to him since he thought he would be free after completing his prison sentence. Adel is a student at Cairo University, but he is unable to attend his classes three times a week because his probation measures have to be implemented in another governorate. Adel said that he is not able to express his opinion or engage in any peaceful political activities, fearing that such activities could be considered as violating his probation conditions and may lead to his renewed prosecution.

Probation paving the way for renewed detention

Amnesty International spoke to the activist Abd el-Azim Ahmed Fahmy, known as Zizo Abdo, whom the police detained in May 2016 on charges of inciting the public to participate in an unauthorized protest. After spending five months in pre-trial detention he was then placed under police probation for two hours three times a week at Bolak el-Dakrour police station in Cairo. On 14 February 2017, a court ordered an end to his probation term and ordered his detention again for 45 days for failing to present himself at the police station during probation hours on 8 February. His lawyer told Amnesty international that Zizo had not reported to the police station on that day because he had been arrested by the police while sitting in a café hours earlier and was held incommunicado for five hours. On 26 February the Cairo Criminal Court examined Abdo`s appeal against his re-detention and ordered his conditional release on police probation. 

Egyptian activist Zizo Abdo ©Private
Egyptian activist Zizo Abdo ©Private

Abdo told Amnesty International that under probation, he felt trapped between freedom and imprisonment, he could not work or travel, even inside Egypt, or express his opinion in public matters. He avoided involvement in any political activities for fear of renewed detention should such acts be interpreted as breaches of his probation conditions.

Khaled el-Ansary, Said Fathallah and Ahmed Kamal were detained for a second time on 22 October 2016 and are currently in pre-trial detention on charges of belonging to a banned group called “25 January Youth”. The three men spent seven months in pre-trial detention after their arrest on 30 December 2015.

The court first ordered their conditional release on 1 August 2016 and ordered police probation terms for four hours, from 8 pm to 12 am, in three different police stations, three times a week. On 7 September, 2016 the court decreased their probation to two hours, once a week. On 20 October, the Cairo Criminal Court lifted the probation order for the three men. But two days later, the State Security Prosecution appealed the court’s decision. A different chamber within the same court examined the appeal and decided to detain the men for 45 days, even though they had not violated any of the probation conditions and had strictly adhered to reporting to police stations during police hours.

Since then the detention of the three men has been renewed every 45 days, with the last renewal taking place on 25 February 2017.

Two of the men Khaled el-Ansary and Said Fathallah, have gone on hunger strike in protest at their treatment. Khaled el-Ansary’s mother told Amnesty International that the probation measures have had a detrimental effect on his university studies and the work, lives and finances of his family.