Rights Organizations Warn that New Counter-Terrorism Law would Re-Establish Foundations of Police State and Intensify Violence and Terrorism

Press Release

7 November 2013

The undersigned rights organizations call upon the Egyptian cabinet to reject the counter-terrorism bill that was recently presented by the Interior Ministry. We warn that adoption of this bill would serve as the legal basis for the re-establishment of the police state seen in Egypt prior to January 25, 2011, when numerous exceptional policies and laws had given free rein to the security apparatus to violate the rights and freedoms of citizens in the name of “countering terrorism.” We urge the Egyptian government to review the considerations of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism – who requested to be allowed to conduct an official visit to Egypt in 2011 and 2012 without receiving a response from the Egyptian authorities – as the bill in its current form is in blatant contradiction with the relevant recommendations issued by the United Nations. Moreover, the bill represents a major step backwards from the commitments made by the government of Ahmed Nazif before the United Nations on this matter.

The undersigned organizations emphasize that the pattern of resorting to repressive security measures over the past thirty years, coupled with the failure to adopt a coherent set of economic, social, cultural, and media policies to address the root causes of the rise in terrorist activities, led in practice to the inability of the Mubarak regime to genuinely put an end to such terrorist acts. Rather, during the last years of Mubarak’s rule, terrorism spread and the Sinai Peninsula gradually turned into a haven for terrorist and other armed groups. In addition, responsibility for the increased presence of such armed groups in Sinai also lies with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which was in control of the country following the ouster of Mubarak, as well as with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. The public incitement to violence by some leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood further contributed to the escalation of such armed activities in Sinai and other areas of the country following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.

It is important to note in this context that the rationale contained in the explanatory note of the bill presented by the Interior Ministry does not differ significantly from the reasons used by the Mubarak regime to pass Law no. 97 of 1992, an exceptional counter-terrorism law which failed to address the issue of terrorism. This repetition of history will not only result in a similar failure to confront terrorism, but also increased systematic repression of political and civil society activists.

The undersigned organizations warn that continuing the same practices of the Mubarak regime, such as setting aside the principle of rule of law and resorting instead to repressive security measures and exceptional laws which undermine human rights and the foundations of the rule of law, will only serve to increase the occurrence of acts of armed violence and terrorism. It is important to note that many such acts carried out by some Islamist groups and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – acts which should not in any case be characterized as legitimate – intensified in the wake of the excessive force used to disperse sit-ins held by the Brotherhood and its supporters in a manner not at all commensurate with the dangers posed by the presence of some armed elements at these sit-ins.

Comments made by the interior minister stating that he did not anticipate widespread acts of violence by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in response to the dispersal of their sit-ins clearly reflect a massive failure by the security establishment. Indeed, reforming the security establishment and bringing its performance into line with international human rights standards and the principle of rule of law constitute an urgent priority if the interim authorities wish to adopt a serious strategy for countering the emergence of acts of armed violence and terrorism and to bring those responsible for the commission of such crimes to justice.

Further, the undersigned organizations recall that a number of them previously issued warnings – particularly on July 25 – that “countering terrorism” does not in any way constitute an authorization for the police or the armed forces to act outside of the law. Rather, the police must comply with the law and uphold respect for human rights and the rule of law when performing its duty to confront armed violence. The police is not in need of an additional mandate or legislation in order, for example, to fulfill its duty to protect churches from anticipated attacks following incitement to such violence by some Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters of other Islamist groups. What is needed is an end to the pattern of police absence at the site of such incidents, a policy that has continued to be followed by the security apparatus since the fall of the Mubarak regime.

After studying the counter-terrorism bill presented by the Interior Ministry in September 2013, the undersigned human rights organizations note the following concerns:

First: The vague definitions of “terrorist acts” and “terrorist crimes” established by Law no. 97 of 1992 should have been revised, as such ambiguity allows for counter-terrorism legislation to be used to repress the political opposition, the exercise of the freedom of opinion and expression, and human rights defenders and civil society organizations. The 1992 law faced intense criticism by human rights organizations,[1] by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights upon review of Egypt’s report in 1993, and by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights in his report following his visit to Egypt in April 2009. Instead of addressing these concerns, the current bill broadens its definitions even further so as to allow them to be applied to crimes and even legal activities that do not relate to terrorism, including terms which are difficult to define legally such as “severely undermining public order”, “subjecting the safety, interest, or security of society to danger”, “disrupting the authorities from carrying out some of their activities”, “subjecting the lives, rights, or freedoms of citizens to danger”, “preventing educational institutions from carrying out their work”, and “[carrying out] acts which seek to hinder the implementation of the constitution or the law.” The definition of an “act of terrorism” also extends to “any behavior which damages the communications or information systems, the financial systems, or the national economy”. The bill further considers a “terrorist crime” to be defined as “any crime committed with the intention of achieving one of the goals of terrorism.” Such broad provisions allow for political groups, social and political protest movements, and civil society organizations to be targeted under the law. It is clear that the principle aim of this bill in its current form is not to counter terrorism, but rather to restrict such groups, movements, and organizations.

Second: The intentional broadening of the scope of crimes and actions considered “terrorist crimes” in the current bill reveals the underlying propensity towards implementing the provisions of such legislation to harass peaceful political opposition members, human rights activists, and a broad range of groups working to defend democracy and human rights. This is particularly apparent in article 13 of the current bill, which imposes a harsh prison sentence on all who found, establish, organize, administer, or hold a position of leadership in any association or body or organization whose purpose includes in any way calling for the impediment of the provisions of the constitution or the law or damaging national unity. This provision could easily be interpreted to punish individuals or organizations which call for constitutional or legal reforms, even if done peacefully. Moreover, the term “damaging national unity” is often used to ban organizations which work peacefully to counter religious discrimination or to defend the rights of minorities.

The provisions of the current bill could also be easily employed to curb freedom of opinion and expression and media freedoms. Article 21 imposes a prison sentence of up to five years on all who “directly or indirectly promote a terrorist organization or call for the commission of terrorist acts, verbally or in written form, whether through broadcast outlets, publications, messages, or websites. This penalty even applies to the spread of ideas and beliefs which are seen as promoting violence – which could encompass a number of traditional political ideologies and programs – as well as to any person who possesses publications propagating such ideas. Article 27 also imposes a prison sentence of not less than five years on all who establish a website with the purpose of propagating ideas or beliefs which promote violence, while article 28 imposes prison sentences on the users of such websites.

Third: The bill’s use of vague definitions of “terrorist acts”, along with the tendency to increasingly criminalize acts which do not necessarily constitute a crime of terrorism, renders the bill incompatible with the principles of human rights and rule of law and in violation of the principles of criminal law, which require that the punishment be proportionate to the gravity of the crime.

The death penalty, which the international community seeks to abolish or, at the very least, to limit the crimes in national legislation for which it can be imposed, also appears in seven additional articles of the current bill. For instance, the death penalty is imposed if a “terrorist act” resulted in deaths; as such, the current bill does not distinguish between acts of murder and other acts which may result unintentionally in the loss of life.

Similarly, with regards to lack of proportionality, the penalties stipulated in article 5 of the current bill do not distinguish between attempts to commit a crime and actual commission of the crime.

Fourth: The provisions of the current bill are in blatant violation of the principle of equality before the law and of standards for guarantees of a fair trial, as they deprive the accused of a number of legal and procedural protections which are guaranteed to other defendants under the law. Of particular concern is the fact that the formation of a prosecutorial authority specific to counter-terrorism, in addition to the stipulations in article 40 which designate specific circuits to review cases of terrorism and related crimes, represents a clear intervention of the executive – through the Ministry of Justice – into matters of the judiciary and raises new doubts about the impartiality of judges and investigators. This impartiality is cast into further doubt due to the lack of a clear, specific definition of terrorist acts and terrorist crimes, as this lack of a clear definition could result in inconsistency on the part of the investigative authorities or judges due to differing assessments about what acts fall under the broad categorization of “terrorist acts/crimes” covered by this law.

Finally, the undersigned human rights organizations affirm their categorical condemnation of all acts of armed violence, including in particular those which have occurred since the fall of the regime of President Mohamed Morsi, regardless of the motivations behind or excuses made to justify them. We assert that those responsible for such acts must be held accountable, regardless of their affiliations. We emphasize once again that countering acts of armed violence requires not only a strong security response which complies with the relevant international standards and ensures respect for human rights, but also the adoption of a set of measures and policies to address the social, economic, and political grievances which have created an environment that fosters the emergence of militant groups and terrorism. Such measures should include effective policies and programs to ensure that a balanced approach to development is implemented across the country which seeks in particular to uphold the rights of those living in the most marginalized areas, particularly in Sinai and southern Egypt. Effective measures should also be adopted to prevent discrimination on the basis of religious or ethnic affiliation. A total reform of religious discourse and educational curricula – particularly religious education – should be likewise undertaken, and any discourse in the media that reinforces political exclusionism or authoritarianism should be done away with.

We emphasize that the ability of the security forces to confront acts of violence and terrorism requires security reform, improving the professionalism of the police, and the use of modern technology in conducting investigations and gathering evidence and information. Mechanisms to ensure accountability and to prevent impunity for crimes committed by security forces must also be implemented.

Justice cannot be achieved selectively. Punishing those responsible for acts of violence will not result in any benefit to society without accountability for crimes committed by the police when confronting this violence. Indeed, such selective impunity will only serve to spread the desire for revenge and retaliation against the police.

Containing the current wave of armed violence will require adopting political and legal measures to create an opening that will allow the country to safely exit the current political crisis. This must involve an immediate review of the legal status of thousands of prisoners held in pre-trial detention since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi as well as an end to the use of preventive detention to punish individuals for their political affiliations – or for their suspected political affiliations – without presenting evidence against them. Legal guarantees must be provided to all defendants, and investigations and trials taking place inside of prisons and detention centers must be immediately ended. The right of detainees to communicate with their relatives and lawyers must be ensured, the ongoing use of military judges to try defendants in some cases must be ended, and all individuals convicted by military courts must be given a re-trial before a civilian judge.

Signatory organizations

1.     Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies2.     Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies3.     Appropriate Communications Techniques for Development (ACT)4.     Arab Network for Human Rights Information5.     Arab Penal Reform Organization6.     Association for Freedom of Expression and of Thought7.     Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance8.     Egyptian Association for Economic and Social Rights9.     Habi Center for Environmental Rights10. Misryon Against Religious Discrimination11. Nazra for Feminist Studies12. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights13. The Egyptian Coalition for the Rights of the Child14. The Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood Conditions15. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights16. The Hesham Mobarak Law Center17. The Human Right Association for the Assistance of the Prisoners18. The Human Rights Legal Assistance Group19. The Land Center for Human Rights20. The New Woman Foundation

[1] See statement by Egyptian human rights organizations entitled, “Counter-terrorism Law – New Relapse for Human Rights,” issued July 22, 1992.