Egypt's anti-terror law stirs criticism for enshrining repression

Ayat Al Tawy , Tuesday 18 Aug 2015

Egypt's semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights and the country's Journalists Syndicate say the bill curtails freedoms, designed to crush dissent

Bedouins test weapons in mountainous region of central Sinai. (Photo: Reuters)

Egypt's rights campaigners have voiced concern over a new anti-terror law that they say would roll back freedoms and muzzle dissent under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

The new law sets a broad definition of terrorism, stipulating stiffer prison terms for terror-related offences.

It also adds provisions that widen the power of security forces and shield them from prosecution and imposes heavy fines on journalists who contradict the state's version of militant attacks.

Authorities claim the bill, signed into law late Sunday by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, will help crush a mounting Islamist insurgency spearheaded by an Islamic State group affiliate which has battered the country over the past two years.

The government sought to pass the law after El-Sisi pledged a tougher legal system in July following the assassination of the country's top public prosecutor Hisham Barakat in a car bombing, the highest ranking state official to be killed in years.

The law lays down an array of terror crimes, including the use of force, threatening or terrorising individuals, "disturbing public order" and "undermining national unity, social peace and national security."

Also included is targeting state or public property or obstructing authorities, charges which hundreds of peaceful protesters have previously been jailed for.

"This way, every citizen is accused of terrorism until proven otherwise," Kamal Abbas, a member of Egypt's semi-official National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), told Ahram Online.

"The bill's extremely loose definition of terrorism could harness it to inhibit any democratic practice, including the right to protest, assembly and association," Abbas said.

"It enshrines a repressive policy under the cover of fighting terrorism," he added.

Abbas said the bill was ratified without being reviewed by NCHR, something that contravenes the country's national charter which stipulates that the council should be consulted on rights legislation. 

It prescribes a penalty of life in jail or death for forming or leading what the government deems a "terrorist group" and life in prison for financing such groups. Membership in "terrorist groups" will be punishable by a minimum of 10 years in jail.  

Promoting terrorist acts with words, writing or by any other means would carry a five-seven year jail sentence, while creating or using websites that promote ideas that call for carrying out such acts would lead to at least a five-year sentence.

El-Sisi has signed off several laws by decree as the country has been without an elected legislature since 2012 when a court dissolved the main chamber.  

The 54-article bill shields its enforcers -- including the military and police -- from legal culpability if they use what it defines as "necessary and proportionate" force in performing the duties or facing a "real and imminent threat."

"This gives a carte blanche to security forces to kill," Abbas said.

"[Police] will be protected against prosecution in case their brutality leads to injury or death," he added.

Police violence and human rights abuses helped ignite the 2011 revolt that swept long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power. Pro-democracy activists say that security forces have since increasingly acted with impunity.

Critics also say the law will trample on media and press freedoms, imposing hefty fines ranging from LE200,000 to LE500,000 ($25,500 to $64,000) on journalists for reporting information that contradicts the state's narrative on militant attacks or security operations against jihadists.

A previous draft prescribed imprisonment for offenders but was reviewed following a chorus of local and international disapproval.

"This will not only infringe on journalists' rights to unbiased and accurate information but will effectively land them in jail for failing to pay a fine far beyond the means of most journalists and news organisations," Karem Mahmoud, head of the legislative committee of Egypt's Journalists Syndicate, told Ahram Online.

The law also allows courts to prevent reporters convicted of such an offence from "practicing their profession for no more than a year," something Mahmoud argues to be unconstitutional. The only entity entitled to implement such measure, he says, is the press syndicate.

The new law also allows existing courts to establish special circuits to swiftly process terrorism-related cases.

Despite criticism from rights advocates, the law has been hailed by many Egyptians who long for stability after years of turmoil in the Arab world's most populous state. They argue that it would help restore security and order.

Egypt has been battered by unrest since the July 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, which unleashed a deadly militant insurgency and a state crackdown on Islamists.

Thousands of Islamists, as well as secularist and liberal activists, have since been jailed and hundreds have been sentenced to death in mass trials that have sparked international outcry.

An Islamic State group branch in Egypt is sponsoring a deadly campaign that has killed hundreds of police and troops over the past two years.

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