The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticised the newly approved Egyptian protest law as "seriously flawed," urging the government to amend it.
Navi Pillay on Tuesday detailed the main flaws of the law, including unclear wording, excessive sanctions and mounting measures that security forces can use in dealing with protesters.“International law requires precision in detailing what specific conduct is prohibited by law,” she said.
Article 7 states that violations of general security, public order, or production are prohibited, as well as disrupting public interests. Pillay dismissed the wording as lacking clear definition as to what this entails.
A final version of the protest law was issued Sunday after being approved by interim President Adly Mansour. The law stirred controversy when first introduced for public debate, leading to widespread criticism from local and international rights groups. Comments and amendments were added before submitting it to Mansour, yet the final version was dubbed oppressive by many political forces.
Controversial articles include requirements on protest organisers to notify authorities three days in advance of their aims and demands, as well as heavy jail terms and fines for individuals who break the law.
“This is a country whose people have proclaimed loudly, clearly, courageously and repeatedly their desire to be able to demonstrate peacefully in accordance with their international human rights,” Pillay said. “Egyptian civil society organisations and human rights defenders raised many concerns, but unfortunately these have not been taken into account.”
The country has been embroiled in political turmoil since the January 25 uprising that toppled long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. A similar popular movement led to the ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi by the military two years later.
Morsi supporters have held near-daily protests since his ouster, calling for his reinstatement, with demonstrations sometimes descending into bloody clashes with opponents or security forces. The government has cited these persistent confrontations as the pretext for the new protest law.
Pillay referred to earlier events when excessive force was used against protestors, the most recent of which, she said, was the forceful dispersal of the main sit-in of pro-Morsi protesters in Rabaa Al-Adawiya in mid-August, which left hundreds dead.
The law states that security forces "must utilise methods of gradual dispersal for protests." After refusing to leave upon repeated verbal warnings, security forces have the right to use water cannons, batons and teargas to disperse protesters. If this fails, they may fire warning shots, rubber bullets and finally birdshot. Security forces should respond using means proportional to the danger imposed if participants use weapons, an article that could be interpreted to support the use of live ammunition.
“The law should make it absolutely clear that, in accordance with international standards, the intentional lethal use of firearms should only ever occur in order to protect life,” Pillay said.
In the first real test to the law, security forces dispersed a protest intended to commemorate the first anniversary of Gaber ("Jika") Salah's death.
Activists were warned to leave the site of protest in downtown Cairo within minutes or the new protest law would be implemented.
Another protest on the same day was dispersed with water cannons and tear gas. Tens of activists participating in the protest were arrested.
Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi defended the law following its issue Monday.
"It is not a law that limits the right to demonstrate, but aims at protecting the right of protesters," El-Beblawi told AFP on Sunday.
Beblawi also said the law does not mandate the need for permission to protest, but rather requires "notification."
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. Egypt is one of the signatories for both, Pillay's statement stressed.
“No one should be criminalised or subject to threats or acts of violence, harassment, persecution, intimidation or reprisals for addressing human rights issues through peaceful protest,” the High Commissioner stressed.
“The fact that the law criminalises acts by demonstrators which may breach ‘security and public order,’ without clearly defining these terms, leaves the door open to a very restrictive and repressive interpretation.”