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Egypt uses terrorism trials to target human rights activists, say UN experts

GENEVA (8 October 2020) – Egypt is using exceptional “Terrorism Circuit Courts” to target human rights defenders, silence dissent, and to lock up activists during the COVID-19 pandemic, UN human rights experts* said today.

“Terrorism charges and exceptional courts are being used to target legitimate human rights activities, and have a profound chilling effect on civil society as a whole,” the experts said. “The use of terrorism courts to target and harass civil society is inconsistent with the rule of law.”

“We are particularly concerned that human rights defenders and civil society actors who have been charged with terrorism are being detained during this pandemic as a form of de facto punishment, gravely endangering their right to life and the right to be free from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

The special courts, created at the end of 2013, appear to fundamentally infringe on individual rights and operate to undermine the right to fair trial, the experts said.

They are part of a broader pattern of the use of terrorism and national security legislation and mechanisms as tools to punish and silence legitimate criticism or expression in Egypt, the experts said.

“Despite the pretext of national security concerns, such targeting in fact undermines rather than advances both security and human rights,” they said.

These courts violate many international human rights norms. Mass trials undermine the right to individual adjudication, limit the right of access to lawyers and undermine the right of lawyers to engage in full and effective defence of their clients. Trials taking place in the offices of the Ministry of the Interior subvert the right to openness and transparency in the legal process.

“Defendants do not enjoy the right to confer safely and confidentially with their lawyer,” they said. “In addition, when the accused are put on trial from behind glass or inside metal cages, sometimes cut off from proceedings at the discretion of the presiding judge, they cannot effectively use their right to be present at their own trial. This treatment also undermines the fundamental right of individuals to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

The sentencing in absentia of Bahey El-Din Hassan, well recognized human rights defender and director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, to 15 years in prison for his human rights activities including posting critical Tweets, is shocking. It is an act of reprisal, seemingly punishing for his cooperation with the United Nations. The exercise of free speech and human rights work are being treated as terrorism, and it appears that the Terrorism Circuit Court is being used to retaliate against human rights activity protected by international law.

The experts said Egypt has a special duty to uphold human rights because this year it co-chairs the UN’s regular Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy requires that States apply their human rights obligations when they engage in counter-terrorism.

“The symbolism is important,” the experts said. “It is vital that the State leading the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review uphold the highest standards of human rights protection domestically as it exhorts and demands that other States do the same.”


*The experts: Ms. Fionnuala Ní AoláinSpecial Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorismMary LawlorSpecial Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Ms. Agnes CallamardSpecial Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executionsIrene KhanSpecial Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mr. Diego García-SayánSpecial Rapporteur on the independence ofjudges and lawyers; and Leigh Toomey (Chair-Rapporteur),Elina Steinerte (Vice-Chair), José Guevara Bermúdez, Seong-Phil Hong, Sètondji Adjovi, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Michelle Erazo (merazo@ohchr.org/+41 22 917 9449).

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / rrosariodesouza@ohchr.org), please contact Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / jlaurence@ohchr.org) and  Kitty McKinsey (kmckinsey@ohchr.org

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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