A crisis in human rights continues in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt more than two years after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, Human Rights Watch (HRW) asserted on Wednesday.
The Egyptian government has waged a security crackdown in response to the rising threat of armed extremists in the Sinai Peninsula and other anti-government groups nationwide, which has led to various human rights violations including torture, forced disappearances, travel bans and possible extrajudicial executions, HRW claimed in its 2015 report.
In his introduction to the report, HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth emphasized that the spread of terrorist attacks in other parts of the Middle East and the resulting masses of refugees have “led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security.”
The response of Egyptian authorities to security threats has led to “oppressive excesses,” continued HRW deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry. “Sisi’s administration has made it clear that dissenting opinions will be crushed, whether by threats or force.”
“Egypt’s government should learn from the country’s own decades-long experience that grinding oppression can plant seeds for future upheaval,” Houry warned.
The 659-page report reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. The section on Egypt begins with the forced eviction of more than 3,000 families from a town on the border of the Gaza Strip to make way for a buffer zone in Rafah constructed by the Armed Forces.
The report further asserted that the international right to freedom of movement was violated when the National Security Agency banned dozens of people from leaving the country without allowing them to challenge these decisions.
A report released by HRW in December 2015 documented several instances in which individuals attempting to exit the country were detained and interrogated by National Security officers. In many instances, the officers confiscated passports without explanation or legal justification.
One of these individuals was Mohamed Lotfy, the executive director of the Egyptian Delegation for Rights and Freedoms. Detained in June 2015 before travelling to Germany, Lotfy was interrogated by security agents and his passport was confiscated with the vague explanation that it was for “security reasons.”
HRW’s report also blamed National Security officers for scores of forced disappearances, which have largely targeted political activists. Egyptian human rights group Freedom for the Brave documented 164 forced disappearances between April and June 2015. The number of disappearances is reportedly on the rise, with at least 215 cases across the country in August and September 2015, according to human rights group Stop Forced Disappearances. The Interior Ministry has long denied this phenomenon.
Detainees who eventually appeared in court reportedly showed signs of abuse and assault indicating mistreatment and torture during their detention, according to a statement released by a group of Egyptian rights organizations in November 2015. The statement cited Article 54 of the Constitution, which stipulates that no person may be arrested, searched, detained or have any restrictions imposed on their freedom except following a court order that necessitates investigations.
The HRW report asserted that torture is regularly used by police in their investigations, citing an Egyptian human rights law firm that said in January 2015 its lawyers had interviewed 465 alleged victims of police torture and ill-treatment between October 2013 and August 2014. The company said they filed 163 complaints with prosecutors in this period, of which only seven reached the courts. According to a report released by Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, over 600 people were tortured in 2015.
The alleged deaths of several detainees as a result of torture in 2015 led to recent protests against the Interior Ministry. In November 2015, thousands protested after Afify Hosny was tortured to death by police while detained in Ismailia. Luxor citizen Talaat Shabeeb died in the same month while in detention, with family and friends alleging he was also tortured by police.
The HRW report stated that Egyptian authorities took action against a dozen officers suspected of involvement in torture cases in December 2015. Of these officers, three have been preliminarily sentenced to five years in prison.
The Alexandria Administrative Court ruled in early January 2016 that individual police officers would be responsible for compensating victims of torture, rather than the Interior Ministry. This ruling allowed the Interior Ministry to distance itself from accountability for the practice of torture in detention, which it claimed is not a systemic issue.
Furthermore, the shooting of nine Muslim Brotherhood members to death by a special police force in July 2015 may have constituted extrajudicial executions, according to the HRW report. The special police force was acting on information from the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency, which claimed that the nine people belonged to a “special operations committee.”
Soon after the shootings, a statement released by the Interior Ministry on Facebook asserted that the men used automatic weapons to attack the police and were killed when security forces returned fire. HRW spoke to 11 relatives and witnesses after the shooting who claimed the men did not carry weapons, but were arrested, tortured and killed.
In October 2015, the Interior Ministry announced that it had arrested 12,000 people on terrorism charges in that year alone.
This only adds to the strain on already overcrowded prisons and police stations, said HRW. The report also stated that more than 250 people have died in custody during Sisi’s administration, most due to medical negligence.
On January 25, 2016, two days before the release of the HRW report, Sisi made contrasting statements on the state of freedom in Egypt, saying, “I assert to everyone that Egypt today is not the same as the Egypt of yesterday. We are building a modern and sophisticated state together that upholds democracy and freedom.”