Egypt lawyers walk thin line between defence and dock

Sunday 16/10/2016
Lawyers complain of irregularities in legal procedures

CAIRO - On top of their daily struggle in police stations and the courts in defence of opposition figures, human rights lawyers in Egypt can suddenly find themselves in the dock.

Malek Adly was released at the end of August after more than three months behind bars on charges of "attempting to overthrow the regime" and "spreading false information".

The lawyer had filed a suit, along with other plaintiffs, to prevent the government from handing over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

He had also supported protests against the deal that led to clashes with police in April.

The courts are examining the maritime border agreement that transfers the two islands, which the Egyptian government has said belong to Riyadh.

"A lawyer today, a defendant tomorrow," said Anas Sayed, counsel for Sayyed el-Banna, who was released after five months in detention on similar accusations.

"Imagine, two days earlier, we were together in court, with him wearing his black (lawyers') gown, preparing our plea. And suddenly, I find myself defending him," said Sayed.

On a typical working day, Mokhtar Mounir, 26, waited more than an hour in a Cairo court with fading paint on the walls for a hearing to begin.

This time, it was a case of a group of minors, handball fans, who had been "arrested arbitrarily".

Pushed for time, he could not wait for the verdict and rushed off to a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo where authorities have set up a court for "sensitive" cases.

Mounir walked through a metal detector, leaving his mobile phone at the entrance.

He later learned of the extension of the pre-trial detention of a client, Ismail Alexandrani, a journalist and researcher on jihadist movements in the restive Sinai Peninsula.

Alexandrani was arrested in late 2015 on his return from Germany and accused of publishing "false information".

"There is no rule of law. Those who oppose the regime risk imprisonment at any moment," said Mounir, adding he was having a relatively "calm" day by his standards.

Since leading the military ouster of Egypt's Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 as army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who won an election a year later, has been accused by human rights groups of suppressing dissent.

Defence lawyers face a long list of obstacles such as extended periods of pre-trial detention and difficulties in arranging private meetings with clients or attending interrogation sessions by prosecutors.

Mounir also works on cases of "forced disappearances".

"This is something that eats up a lot of time. We have to search at police stations, through the police directories, submit complaints to different institutions," he said.

In July, Amnesty International reported an "unprecedented spike" in such incidents in Egypt since early 2015.

Apart from the hurdles faced in defending their clients, defence lawyers themselves often arouse the suspicion of authorities.

"At the last trials I attended, the judges had their opinion of you right from the go. 'It's you, the human rights one. Can't you calm down a bit?'," said Gamal Eid, a veteran in the field.

Eid's assets have been frozen and he has been banned from leaving the country, as part of a wider ongoing trial on foreign financing of civil society groups in Egypt.

In the face of international criticism, authorities insist they respect the independence of the judicial process and that Egyptian law guarantees fair trials.

But lawyers complain of irregularities in legal procedures.

"They prevent you from visiting your client in prison. If they allow it, police officers are present at the interview and take notes on everything," said an Islamist lawyer who requested anonymity.

"Sometimes, lawyers cannot even enter a plea and their witnesses are not called (to court)," he complained. "The lawyer is treated like an accomplice."

Two lawyers, Mohamed Abdel Hafez and Ashraf Shoeib, were defending suspects accused of attacking police when authorities arrested them over the same case.

"A police officer accused them of using their profession to transfer messages from detainees to colleagues outside," said a member of their defence team, also asking not to be named.

The two, who have been in detention for more than a year, are still awaiting a verdict.