Egyptian human rights chief outlines challenges
Cairo- The fight against terrorism, a lack of will from the government and scant cooperation from state institutions hinder efforts to improve human rights in Egypt, said Mohamed Fayek, the head of the country’s rights watchdog.
“These are problems that make it difficult for human rights conditions to improve,” said Fayek, who heads the semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), “but it must be known to everybody that the fight against terrorism, for example, cannot justify human rights violations.”
Egypt’s military has been fighting against a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula while police and security forces have taken steps to clamp down on radical Islamists, such as designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
However, local rights group said authorities are relying on illegitimate measures, particularly temporary detention, that contravene human rights. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a 3-month state of emergency in April after ISIS attacks on two Coptic churches killed 44 people. The emergency laws give police expanded powers of arrest and surveillance.
“When you put an innocent person in temporary detention, you punish him for a crime he did not commit,” Fayek said. “Our next move will be to submit to parliament a bill to limit temporary detentions.”
Observers said the number of Egyptian citizens being arrested but not referred to prosecution as stipulated by the constitution is rising under Sisi. A 2016 Amnesty International report said that hundreds of students, political activists and protesters had been forcibly disappeared.
Asked about human rights conditions in Egypt, Sisi conceded that the state has made “mistakes” but asserted that they are unavoidable as the government works to combat terrorism.
Sisi’s critics, however, say that citing the fight against terrorism is an easy way to wave away human rights abuses.
“The authorities keep violating the constitution by putting innocent people in temporary detentions,” said human rights advocate Negad el-Borai. “The enforced disappearance of citizens is on the rise and nobody is acting against it.”
Fayek said countries that strike a balance between combating terrorism and protecting human rights were best able to protect their citizens.
The NCHR has said it has received little cooperation from Egyptian state institutions to address human rights issues.
“Although some progress has happened in this country, including the drafting in 2014 of a constitution that stresses human rights, the elimination of the emergency laws that [were] enforced for three decades under ex-President Hosni Mubarak and the end of extraordinary trials, his council still has a long way to go to improve human rights conditions,” Fayek said.
“The fact is that we are not fully satisfied with this progress. We try to raise awareness about the importance of protecting human rights, which is a difficult mission.”
Founded in 2003 as the country’s national rights agency, the NCHR works to promote human rights and investigates alleged violations. The organisation produces an annual report about the state of human rights in Egypt.
The 2016 report, published earlier this year, cited the enforced disappearance of dozens of citizens, instances of torture inside police custody and the death of some prisoners. The report called on the Interior Ministry to improve prison conditions and cooperate in revealing the whereabouts of citizens reported by their relatives to have disappeared.
At the same time, the NCHR faces criticism from those who say it does not go far enough to take the government to task and overlooks many human rights violations.
“This is a council that only cares about giving a good impression about the government,” said Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. “Prisoners die inside prison cells because of systematic torture, which makes it necessary for some policemen to be taken to court. The NCHR rarely mentions this information or talks to the authorities about it.”
Fayek, however, asserted that allegations of torture cannot be described as “systematic.” He acknowledged that there were “individual cases” of police and prison officers allegedly committing violations but these are investigated by the Interior Ministry when the council reports them.
“We are not saying everything is perfect but also do not like to look at the negatives only,” Fayek said. “We still have a long way to go because protecting human rights always needs a lot of work and we are doing it, despite challenges.”