Amnesty International has welcomed Egypt's draft constitution as an improvement on its predecessor, but says it still fails to meet the country's human rights obligations.
In a report issued on Tuesday, the London-based human rights group detailed the improvements made to the constitution, but highlighted a number of shortcomings.
A 50-member committee, mostly made up of liberals, recently completed their amendments to the 2012 constitution which was drafted by an Islamist-dominated body under president Mohammed Morsi.
The 2012 charter was suspended after Morsi’s ouster in July. A national referendum on the document will be held in January.
“A better constitutional text, and rights enshrined on paper, is a much needed first step,” Amnesty said of the amended charter.
However, the group pointed to what it describes as the reality of ongoing human rights violations in Egypt.
“If the authorities are serious in their commitment to human rights, they need to stop arresting opposition activists, hold security forces accountable for killing, injuring and torturing protesters, and take real steps to combat sexual harassment of and assaults on women and girls.”
In one of the improvements, the new charter mandates the state to abide by international human rights agreements signed by Egypt. It also criminalises torture and discrimination on the basis of religion, belief, sex, origin, ethnicity, colour, language, disability, social standing, political or geographic affiliation.
However, a greater role for the military and the absence of civilian oversight “raises concerns about whether this institution will be held accountable for violations.”
The new charter gives little transparency to the military budget, and in a transitional provision for eight years it requires the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when naming the military chief.
“It also casts doubt over whether the government will be able to institute desperately needed reforms to ensure that the military, police and security agencies respect human rights and are subject to independent oversight,” the report said.
The group also criticised one of the most contentious articles in the constitution. The article, initially introduced in the 2012 constitution, allows civilians to be tried in military courts. And although the amendments limit the cases to direct attacks on military installations or personnel, it considers factories, petrol stations and clubs owned by the military to be army institutions and “leaves the door open for the ‘law’ to determine other possible crimes falling under the jurisdiction of military courts.”
“Trials of civilians by military courts [are] fundamentally unfair and breach a number of fair trial safeguards, including the right to a fair and public hearing before a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law; the right to have adequate time to prepare a defence; the right to be defended by a lawyer of one’s choosing; and the right to appeal against conviction and sentence to a higher tribunal,” Amnesty said.
More than 12,000 civilians had military trials during army rule after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, and others were tried under Morsi and after his ouster “albeit on a smaller scale.”
Although the text has improved, Amnesty said, the door is left open for practices which harm human rights protected in the charter.
A clear example is a newly approved protest law which prohibits gatherings of more than ten people without notifying the ministry of interior, which can refuse permission for protests deemed a “threat to peace and security.” The law was criticised by international and local rights groups, but the government has insisted the law is needed to control the volatile security situation.
“The inclusion of claw-back clauses in articles setting out the rights to peaceful assembly and the right to strike leaves the door open to undue and arbitrary restrictions on the rights guaranteed,” Amnesty said.
A group of 24 activists were referred to a criminal court on Monday on charges of rioting and violating the protest law after it was put in effect late November.
In an interview with state TV on Monday, Amr Moussa, head of the panel that drafted the new charter, said it would bring massive change to the lives of Egyptians.
"This constitution has vigorously tackled freedoms, rights, and the interests of all the principle factions of society. It obliges the state to take specific steps or specific plans to deal with problems," he said.