Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Tug-of-war over Egypt's anti-terror law bill

Rights advocates, journalists, a former police general and members of the judiciary respond to Egypt's new counter-terrorism draft law

Sinai

Egyptian armored vehicles patrol on the Egyptian side of the border, seen from the south of the Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 2, 2015

Amid a recent upswing of violence in Egypt, the Egyptian government is attempting to once again pass a legislation aiming at curbing a longstanding militancy, only to instigate a wave of criticism.

Following a hectic week, marked by the assassination of Egypt's top prosecutor Hisham Barakat last Monday and Islamic State affiliated-Sinai Province offensive raids on security sites two days later, the Egyptian government has issued a new draft for a counter-terrorism law. It has been widely circulated by the local press, while President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi has vowed to achieve "rapid justice against terrorism."

"We will make amendments to laws so that we can achieve justice in the swiftest possible time," El-Sisi said in televised remarks to reporters as he left a military funeral for Barakat last Tuesday.

But several civil society representatives, human rights advocates and the journalist syndicate have rejected the 55-article draft law issued by the cabinet last Wednesday.

They have all claimed that some of its articles contradict the 2014 constitution, while others see the law as a tool of state repression.

"Some articles of the draft law could be easily dubbed unconstitutional," Amr Emam, a lawyer at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, told. 

"I believe it’s a politicised draft law that aims at calming public opinion following last week's attacks, but it might also be used, if passed as it is, against the regime's rivals and add more restrictions on press freedoms."

For instance, article 38 of the draft law gives the security authorities the right to detain an alleged suspect for 24 hours without an arrest warrant, while they are still in the process of collecting information on an alleged terrorist mission.

This article contradicts article 54 of the 2014 constitution, which stipulates that no citizen can be detained or arrested without a judicial permit.  

The April 6 Movement, one of the prominent groups that used social media to organise protests against autocratic president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, condemned the law, describing it as unconstitutional and restrictive.

Amr Ali, general coordinator of the movement, said the law legalises "dictatorial situations" and hides the truth from citizens. The April 6 movement has been banned by a Cairo court since April 2014 after being accused of "defaming the state". 

Restrictions on press 

The most controversial article within the draft is article 33, which states that anyone who intentionally publishes information on any terrorist operation other than what is mentioned in official statements can be sentenced to at least two years in prison.   

The press syndicate issued a statement on Sunday condemning the above-mentioned article, citing that it impedes the journalists from doing their job of collecting information from different sources, and gives the executive branch the authority to impose restrictions on press freedoms.

Karem Mahmoud, a press syndicate board member and the head of its legislative committee, told that the article contradicts article 71 of the constitution, which states that there will be no imprisonment penalties in publishing cases.

"In its introduction, the draft law states that any person or entity convicted of implementing terror acts or impeding the state from implementing the values of the constitution will be punished, so why do the draft law's own articles contradict the constitution?" he asked.

Egypt’s army spokesman, Brigadier General Mohamed Samir, called on the local media last Thursday not to repeat the "wrong" death tolls published in the foreign media covering Wednesday's deadly confrontations between the so-called Sinai Province and the Egyptian army in North Sinai.

While the military released initial figures on Wednesday night, saying that the confrontations had left four officers and 13 soldiers killed, some foreign news outlets put the death toll at 60 to 70 security personnel killed.

'Police Excessive force'? 

Press issues aside, many have also condemned article 6 of the draft law, as it states that security personnel cannot be legally questioned  over their use of force while performing their job.

Ehab Youssef, a former police general who used to serve in the interior ministry's counter-terrorism department, told Ahram Online that there was no need for such an article.

"If passed, this article will bring more trouble to the authorities," he said.

"Egypt's criminal code gives the authorities the right to defend themselves while chasing any militants, but this article would make questioning excessive force or misuse of force impossible," he explained.

Some officers have previously been sentenced to jail over the excessive use of force in minor incidents, he said.

"We do not need special legislation to fight terrorism, as the criminal code is enough, and only needs some amendments in terms of fighting cyber-terrorism," he added.  

Sherif Mohy El-Din, a researcher in counter-terrorism and human rights for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, agrees with Youssef.

"You can't fight terrorism only with laws, you have to use modern technologies," he said. "Beyond targeting terrorists, this law makes the possibility of civilians being accused much broader."

"I also doubt that the authorities could make good or vital use of the newly issued articles. For instance, a few months ago, El-Sisi issued the terrorist organisations law, according to which the government can classify groups as terrorist, but we still haven't seen any practical implementation of it," he added.

In the absence of parliament, President El-Sisi has held legislative authority. But once elected, the parliament must review all the laws issued by the president within 15 days.

Ibrahim El-Heneidy, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Transitional Justice, however defended the government right to issue such a law.

"I think we are in a war against terrorism and this law comes as a new harsher measure aimed at stemming the tide of terrorist organisations," El-Heneidy told the press last week. "The new package of anti-terrorism measures is quite enough for there not to be any need at the moment for any extraordinary or emergency measures to stand up to terrorism."

The government has tried to issue this draft law several times since the spike in violence following ouster Mohamed Morsi's in July 2013.

The Supreme Judiciary Council announced on Sunday that it had ratified the law to pass.

However, judicial sources told that the SJC had expressed its reservations over articles related to establishing special courts for terrorism crimes.

Local media have reported that the next step will be to send the draft to the state council for legal revision before sending it to the president for official ratification.

While the press syndicate's Mahmoud ruled out the possibility that this draft might pass without being amended, or at least having its controversial articles removed, Emam from the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre said that it would pass as it is.

"Remember the protest law?" he said. "It was also rejected by many activists, yet eventually it passed, and many people were sent to jail based on it."