Egypt: Torture so Widespread and Systematic as to Constitute a Crime Against Humanity
Today, a coalition of international and Egyptian NGOs has submitted a detailed legal analysis to the UN Committee against Torture concluding that the Egyptian authorities’ use of torture is so widespread and systematic as to amount to a crime against humanity under customary international law.
The legal analysis forms the basis of the report, “Torture in Egypt: A Crime Against Humanity”, written by REDRESS in collaboration with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), Dignity, the Committee for Justice (CFJ) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). It was submitted to the Committee against Torture ahead of its review of Egypt’s record under the UN Convention against Torture that will take place on 14 and 15 November.
The legal analysis concludes that the nature of torture in Egypt qualifies as a crime against humanity under customary international law, by which Egypt is bound, due to:
- A pattern in the methods of torture used by the Egyptian authorities, including beatings, electrical shocks, sexual violence, such as forced anal examinations and “virginity tests”, the denial of access to medical care and treatment, lack of family contact, and other acts that cause severe pain and suffering.
- The methodical use of torture, both physical and psychological, as a political tool to stifle dissent and for discriminatory purposes by the Egyptian authorities.
- Widely available documentation of the prevalence of torture in Egypt, including decisions from regional and UN human rights bodies, NGOs and media reports, that establish that the highest spheres of State power know or should know that torture is being used widely against dissenters and others in Egypt. The report shows that State officials must have taken measures knowing that they were being committed as part of an attack against civilian dissenters, to advance a State policy.
The report documents how members of the National Security Agency and the National Police are directly responsible as perpetrators of systematic torture. Also implicated in torture are members of the Military Intelligence and General Intelligence Agencies. In addition, the judiciary and State prosecution services, including the Supreme State Security Prosecution directly contribute to these crimes by enabling an environment that facilitates the commission of torture and other ill-treatment.
The report argues that acts of torture in Egypt are part of a State policy enabled by Egypt’s emergency laws, “counter-terrorism” laws and policies, and the rampant impunity for the violations committed by State security and law enforcement officers.
Egypt’s history of torture stretches back four decades, going back to former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year authoritarian regime, which normalised the use of torture and arbitrary detention under the guise of fighting terrorism. However, when he was deposed by a popular uprising in 2011, and replaced by Egypt’s first democratically elected president, President Mohammad Morsi, Morsi and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, continued the use of torture against protestors. Military commander Abdel Fattah el-Sisi then carried on using systematic torture as a tool of repression against political dissidents and activists after coming to power through a coup in 2013.
The report notes that, in the last few years, there has been a spike in the targeting of activists and human rights defenders, who are tortured by police officers and security forces while in incommunicado detention before official charges are filed against them. Some minorities, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, are also subject to torture because of their real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
The report cites many cases, such as that of the lawyer Ibrahim Metwally, who was arrested in 2017 at Cairo International Airport when he was travelling to Geneva to speak about the enforced disappearance of his son before the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. He was then himself subjected to enforced disappearance, as well as torture and other ill-treatment, by NSA officers. Another case is the case of detained activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, whose lawyer Mohamed Al-Baker was arrested in 2019 while representing him before the Supreme State Security Prosecution. Al-Baker was subjected to ill-treatment and sentenced to four years in prison for “spreading false news using a social networking site,” before being released under a presidential pardon in July 2023.
Egypt is the only country to have been the subject of two inquiries by the Committee against Torture following receipt by the Committee of reliable information indicating that torture was being systematically practiced in the country. Both concluded, in 1996 and 2017, that the practice of torture was widespread and systematic in Egypt. In an unprecedented move in 2021, 31 States at the UN Human Rights Council expressed deep concern about Egypt’s application of “counter-terrorism” legislation against human rights defenders and others. In April 2023, the UN Human Rights Committee reiterated its concern on this same issue.
As the brutal crackdown on civil society continues to intensify in Egypt, the report calls on the Egyptian government to urgently act to end the systematic use of torture, to hold those responsible to account, and to repair the harm inflicted on victims, including by enacting law and policy reforms. In addition, the report urges the UN Human Rights Council to establish an investigative body, such as a Commission of Inquiry or a Fact-Finding Mission, or a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Egypt, tasked with monitoring, investigating and establishing the facts and circumstances of torture as a crime against humanity in Egypt, as well as other violations of human rights. The evidence collected by such a body would facilitate accountability efforts. All States should also ensure that perpetrators of torture in Egypt are held to account, including through universal jurisdiction cases, civil claims, sanctions, and other available avenues for accountability.
Rupert Skilbeck, Director of REDRESS, said:
“For decades, the Egyptian authorities have been given free rein to abuse their citizens through arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture. Torture is dismissed as merely isolated acts of misconduct instead of being seen for what it really is: a deliberate attack on Egypt’s citizens that is a crime against humanity. It is time to hold accountable those who perpetrate, tolerate, and cover up torture, including those in authority who turn a blind eye.”
Mohamed Lofty, Executive Director of ECRF, said:
“Through successive regimes, the Egyptian government has employed torture as a political tool to curtail dissent. Human rights defenders, minorities, journalists, academics, and opposition politicians have been disproportionately targeted as threats to the regime. State policy and laws, and rampant impunity, have perpetuated this cycle of torture.”