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The law, politics and thuggery behind travel bans

Security officials at the Cairo Airport banned Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Delegation for Rights and Freedoms, from travelling to Germany on Tuesday, but provided no clear reason for the decision.

Lotfy arrived at Cairo Airport to board a plane to Frankfurt, in order to participate in the hearing held at the German Parliament discussing the human rights situation in Egypt. A number of international specialists are also meant to attend the hearing.

In front of the passport office, Lotfy was told that he needed to speak with one of the security officers because of an unspecified problem. During the interview, a plainclothes security officer informed Lotfy that he would not be allowed to travel.

In a telephone conversation with Mada Masr, Lotfy explains that when he asked the security officer why he was banned from traveling, he was told that it was due to “security measures.”

But that explanation was not enough for Lotfy, who pressed for more answers. After close to three hours, the security officer told Lotfy that he was not able to provide any other information, and that he would learn everything “at the appropriate time.”

The security officer then took Lotfy’s telephone number and address and told him he could return home, saying, “We will contact you again to return your passport and let you know what happened.” He then added, with a smile, “This is last time you will be banned.”

After Lotfy returned home, he was not contacted by security officials explaining why he was banned or how he could recover his passport.

This is not the first time a citizen has been prevented from traveling without a court order or a decision from the prosecutor general. On May 16, security officials at Cairo airport prevented a delegation of students from a number of political parties, including the Democratic Egypt Party, the Nour Party and the Strong Egypt Party, from attending a conference in the Czech Republic.

Samah Samir, a lawyer for the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, said that the students were banned from travel and had their passports taken from them without any legal basis. He added that Article 4 of the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of movement for all citizens.

According to Samir, the Criminal Procedure Code defines two specific cases when a citizen can be denied their constitutional right to freedom of movement: when a court issues a final decision banning the citizen from travel, or if the Prosecutor General issues a travel ban to prevent a citizen under investigation from leaving the country until the investigation is complete.

According to Samir, there are no other cases where it is legal for security officials to prevent citizens from leaving the country. The students who were prevented from travelling, and are yet to receive their passports, intend to file a lawsuit to the administrative court of appeals.

Mohamed Zarea, the director of the Cairo Center for the Study of Human Rights, speaks about other similar cases. He gives the example of Samaa al-Torky, who works for the Center for Egyptian Women’s Issues, who was prevented from traveling when she was meant to go to Denmark last Sunday. Her passport was confiscated in a similar manner to Lotfy’s.

The incident followed a decision issued by the Education Ministry requiring professors to obtain security approval before travelling. Doctor Nabil Labib Youssef revealed the decision after he was prevented from traveling to Hungary to follow up on his supervision of an Egyptian student there, according to a statement released by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).

Lotfy being prevented from traveling seems like a paradox to lawyer Ramy Ghanem, who asks, “How is possible that Ahmed Moussa is traveling despite the court rulings against him?”

Moussa, a controversial talk show host, travelled to Germany to cover President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s visit, even though he was convicted of libel against Osama Ghazali Harb, and was sentenced to two years in prison. Ghanem says that it is illegal to prevent Lotfy from traveling, adding that allowing Moussa to travel is “a blatant disregard of the law.”

It is easy to connect Lotfy’s travel ban with Sisi’s visit to Germany.

Professor Norbert Lammert, the head of the German parliament, told the German newspaper Der Spiegal that he cancelled a meeting with the Egyptian president during his visit, which began today. Lammert explained that he cancelled the meeting due to “the human rights situation in Egypt,” and added he sent a letter to the Egyptian ambassador in Berlin explaining the reasons for his refusal to meet with Sisi.

During this controversy over Sisi’s visit to Germany and Egypt’s human rights situation, Mohamed Zarea thinks that the prevention of activists and human rights defenders from traveling shows the direction the state is going in. He adds that these incidents are a continuation of the Egyptian government’s pattern of attempting to prevent media outlets and human rights organizations from showing how much the state of human rights is deteriorating in Egypt.

Zara adds that, in the case of Lotfy, “without the existence of a judicial ruling to prevent him from travelling, this behavior cannot be understood as anything except thuggery.” 

Mohamed Hamama