Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned the arrest of at least seven activists from the Strong Egypt party for hanging posters calling for a "no" vote in the forthcoming constitutional referendum.
Police arrested the activists in three separate incidents after finding them in possession of posters calling for a "no" vote in the week preceding the referendum.
“Egyptian citizens should be free to vote for or against the new constitution, not fear arrest for simply campaigning for a 'no' vote,” said Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa deputy director. “Protecting the right to vote requires safeguarding the right to free expression.”
Prosecutors have charged 30-year-old accountant Ihab Abd El-Karim, 21-year-old Islam Al-Akabawy and 22-year-old Ali Mohamed, law students at Cairo and Al-Azhar Universities, who were arrested on 7 January in Cairo's Garden City after they had finished hanging posters calling for a 'no' vote.
35-year-old store owner Mahmoud Emam was detained on 10 January when police pulled him off a minibus at a police checkpoint in Cairo's Abbassiya and found posters calling for a 'no' vote in his belongings. He was charged with alleged involvement in terrorism.
Sami Ashraf, Mohamed Abu Leila, and Ahmed Badawi were detained on 12 January for “distributing fliers, attempting to overthrow the regime, inciting citizens to reject the constitution, and engaging in incitement against the police and army.”
Police arrested 20-year-old engineering student Mohamed Baghat in Khosous, a city in the Qalioubiya Governorate, on 11 January for spraying “No to the Constitution” on the wall of a public school, where a “Yes to the Constitution” conference was being held.
Baghat was released without charge after being interrogated by National Security officers in a detention cell at the Khosous police station.
According to the testimonies collected by HRW, the detainees were beaten and subjected to violence while being arrested and in detention.
Police officers forced Emam to take off his undershirt and tear it up in front other detainees, and to run up two flights of stairs blindfolded as they hit him.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Hany Abdel-Latif denied any violent incidents with the detainees.
“Only three boys with posters against the army and the police were detained because they were involved in a fight with other citizens. One of them had a previous verdict so he was subjected to court, while the other two were freed,” Abdel-Latif said.
HRW said there was an increasing practice of police detaining peaceful political activists.
Seven students at Al-Azhar university were arrested in December for carrying “No to the Constitution” and “No to the Protest Law” banners.
Nine Muslim Brotherhood members were arrested on 5 January for distributing flyers calling for a boycott of the referendum, HRW said, quoting Al-Ahram newspaper.
Spokesman for Strong Egypt Ahmed Emam said on Saturday that the arrests of his party members were part of "a vicious campaign against anyone who opposes the draft constitution."
In an online statement, Strong Egypt party said its members had decided last minute to boycott the referendum due to the abolition of guarantees for a fair vote. Other reasons cited are the direct mass media propaganda and the exploitation of public money and resources, and the campaign of arrests and security violations imposed on party members for the exercise of their constitutional right to invite citizens to vote "no."
HRW urged the state to protect freedom of expression and abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Article 65 of Egypt’s new draft constitution states all individuals have the right to “express their opinion through speech, writing, imagery, or any other means of expression and publication.”