The Egyptian government is using emergency state courts and anti-terrorism laws to detain and prosecute activists, journalists, and human rights defenders under the guise of protecting Egypt from “terrorists and drug traffickers.” These proceedings violate international human rights law because the counter-terrorism judicial courts rarely offer a fair trial or appeal process, and the trials often result in capital punishment. Egypt is using these counter-terrorism courts to silence dissent to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government.
Egypt dramatically expanded its definition of terrorism when it passed Law 95 of 2015 for Confronting Terrorism. The Egyptian counter-terrorism law exceeds the definition of terrorism adopted by the UN Security Council by designating an act of terrorism as any “use of force or violence or threat or terrorizing” that aims to “disrupt general order” or the work of public authorities; endanger the safety or security of society; or harm other people, the environment, peace, or “national unity.” Under this definition, typically lawful acts of civil disobedience could be construed as terrorism and prosecuted accordingly. The law also affects any person or group identified by the government in the Terrorist Entities Law (2015), which relies on a similarly ambiguous definition of terrorism and allows for courts to approve a prosecutor’s nomination to designate individuals or groups as terrorists. Law 95 further expands prosecutors’ powers, going so far as to allow warrantless detentions of suspected terrorists for up to eight days without judicial review.
Egyptian authorities’ abusive use of counter-terrorism laws and courts have only increased since the passage of the above laws. Journalists, bloggers, human rights and labor activists, and other peaceful critics of the regime have been the primary targets of this extended counter-terrorism crackdown. Those accused of violating Egypt’s 2015 counter-terrorism law are transferred to Emergency State Security Courts, a parallel system opened in October 2017 to address terrorism and drug trafficking in response to a declared state of emergency. These extrajudicial courts are overseen by a special prosecutorial branch, the Supreme State Security Prosecution, which has charged several activists for aiding or joining a banned terrorist group or “spreading false news.”
Under Article Six of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), all persons have the inherent right to life, and in countries that still practice capital punishment, the death sentence should only be carried out for the most serious crimes. Anyone sentenced to death always maintains their right to amnesty, pardon, or commutation of the sentence. Pursuant to Article Fourteen of the ICCPR, all persons shall receive equal treatment in court, and each is entitled to a fair, public hearing before a “competent, independent and impartial tribunal” with the right to appeal or receive judicial review of verdicts. Article Ninety-seven of Egypt’s 2014 Constitution forbids the use of extraordinary courts. Finally, Security Council Resolution 1624 (2005) emphasizes states’ responsibilities to ensure any measures enacted to address terrorism do not violate international law, especially international human rights law.
In a joint statement last fall, seventeen independent UN human rights experts condemned the use of Egypt’s anti-terrorism laws to systematically attack human rights activists. An unusually high number of signatories supported the statement, in which the case of a women’s rights activist, Amal Fathy, was prominently criticized. Ms. Fathy was charged, inter alia, for terrorism and “publishing fake news” while promoting women’s rights. The UN experts described the targeting of activists such as Ms. Fathy as evidence that the Egyptian government is using the guise of counter-terrorism to squash legitimate and peaceful political dissent. The ICCPR, the UN Security Council Resolution 1624, and Egypt’s own constitution, clearly support their assertion. The Egyptian government is in violation of its international and national responsibilities to provide fair criminal proceedings and preserve human rights. The government should suspend all open cases and cease the use of its extraordinary counter-terrorism courts.