Who does a gag order really serve?
 
 

The gag orders placed on the torture and killing of lawyer Karim Hamdy at the Matareya Police Station and Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s murder have been the subject of much controversy, while the General Prosecutor defends the decisions on the grounds that they are meant to safeguard the course of investigations.

Two National Security officers, Mohamed Hammad and Mohamed al-Ahmadi, have been accused of killing Hamdy, while Central Security Forces Lieutenant Colonel Mostafa Ahmed is the main suspect in Sabbagh’s murder, possibly linking the gag order to cases where security forces are implicated.

A look into the most prominent cases where a gag order was imposed may settle the debate.

One of the most significant cases of this kind was that of Mohamed Fouda, assistant to former Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, who was arrested in 1997 with former Giza Governor Maher al-Gendy. The prosecution acquired recordings between Fouda and other officials pertaining to cases of fraud and bribery and issued a gag order on the case before he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

Two other similar cases took place in 2008. The first involved three judges accused of bribery and the other pertained to a corruption case in the Shura Council, which involved member of the now disbanded National Democratic Party Mohamed Farid Khamis. Khaled al-Balshy, then chief editor of Al-Badil newspaper was placed under investigation at the time for violating the gag order imposed on the case.

That same year, the General Prosecutor imposed a gag order on the case of Hisham Talaat Mostafa, member of the Shura Council and NDP, and close friend of the Mubarak family, and police officer Hossam al-Sokkari, accused of the murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim. This stirred controversy on the influence of Mostafa’s political ties.

“The General Prosecution has the right to impose a gag order in cases related to personal status or national security,” Gamal Eid, lawyer and head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) tells Mada Masr. “But this right has to be exercised on a minimal level and with complete transparency.”

“The question marks around the Egyptian judicial system make us wonder whether these decisions come to protect people linked to the regime,” he says. “Over the past two months, two gag orders were imposed on the cases of [Hamdy and Sabbagh], knowing that the defendants in both cases are police officers.”

A number of lawyers on Sunday organized a march from the Lawyers’ Syndicate to the General Prosecutor’s office at the Supreme Court, and filed a complaint against the gag order on Hamdy’s case, demanding that lawyers attend the sessions where the defendants are being interrogated.

“A gag order on a case like the one investigating Ansar Beit al-Maqdes is understandable, but the cases which require this kind of procedure are mostly found on the pages of the newspapers, such as the Ramses bathhouse case, which affects citizens and pertains to their private lives, and from which they were eventually acquitted,” Eid says.

Eid explained that gag orders have often been used to settle political and security issues. “In 2003, Gamal Abdel Fattah, a pharmacist, read in the news that his pharmacy had been raided and he had been accused of selling narcotics two hours before it was actually raided,” Eid says. “Whoever dispensed the news to news outlets did not think it would be published in the first print.”

Should the prosecution wish to exercise that right, Eid says, it should clarify the reasons behind it and it should be for a limited time – the duration of the investigation, for example.

Last January, the General Prosecutor had issued a gag order on the kidnapping of police officer Ayman Mohamed Ibrahim Dessouky in North Sinai to ensure that investigations would go smoothly, before the Province of Sinai, a militant group formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, released a video online showing his kidnapping and execution.

One month later, the prosecution imposed a gag order on Sabbagh’s case, adding a new twist to the case. Reports were published claiming that investigations are being conducted on 17 officers, followed immediately by a statement by the General Prosecution denying these reports and imposing a gag order.

Balshi, board member of the Journalists’ Syndicate, tells Mada Masr that the real problem lies in imposing such orders in the absence of legislation regulating the exchange of information.

“In Sabbagh’s case, for example, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, the General Prosecutor had denied the reports and imposed a gag order, but he is responsible for clarifying the false information,” he says.

Balshi adds, “Regardless, the way the decision came out raised a lot of questions around the prosecution, with some suspecting that it is intimidated by the Interior Ministry’s effect on its investigations.”

AD