Human Rights Watch: Egypt's military council must reform laws immediately

Ekram Ibrahim , Tuesday 7 Jun 2011

The leading international human rights organisation spells out the reforms needed for freedom to flourish in Egypt as it calls on the ruling military council to have 'thicker skin' and reply to criticism rather than silence it

HRW press conference
Photo: Ekram Ibrahim

Acts of torture committed both during Mubarak’s era and currently under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is one of the top concerns of Human Rights Watch, the international human rights organisation. Their concerns come at a time when the dissolution of the State Security Intelligence (SSI) is not seen as being a sufficient solution to the problem. “Not one senior official has been prosecuted for torture committed by the SSI. The interior ministry seems to be still in the denial stage,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

The torture carried out by the SSI was organised and systemised, and Human Rights Watch fears that it could be repeated by the new police agency, especially as the majority of senior staff have only undergone a change in position, nothing more.

What was more worrying to the organisation is that the minister of interior didn’t acknowledge that torture was systematic but rather random and sporadic. “If the ministry had acknowledged the significance of the problem, that would have given more hope,” Roth said.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Egypt’s transition to a democracy which respects the rule of law and human rights is at risk, unless the military transition government carries out a number of immediate human rights reforms. HRW gave its recommendations after meeting with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and other members of SCAF and the ministers of justice and interior.

As well as torture, an end to military trials is another of the main issues on the agenda of HRW. During the meeting, a SCAF official denied sending any protesters to military trials, except for those who protested at the Israeli Embassy on 15 May. The rest, the official claimed, were thugs and prisoners who escaped from prisons. But HRW, in addition to other rights organisations, have testimonies of hundreds of protesters who were sent to military trials. While SCAF has released the majority of them, there are still a few in military prisons, such as Amr El-Baihairy. “Military trials should be exclusively used for military discipline,” said Roth.

HRW also asked about virginity tests forcibly administered on female protesters during their prosecution by the military. “SCAF said this was to protect the females from rape in military prisons and this is done all over prisons in Egypt,” Roth said. But Human Rights Watch considers this a violation of human rights rather than a normal procedure, so they recommend ensuring a secure system inside prisons instead. Meanwhile, SCAF told Human Rights Watch that they have ordered an end to virginity tests.

Another pressing need is changing the laws that restrict freedoms. HRW urge the immediate lifting of the emergency law and a review of the code covering censorship of the media. The law prohibits insulting the president and giving false information. “SCAF should have thicker skin and accept criticism and accusations; they had better reply rather than shut the mouths of journalists,” Roth said.

During the meeting between SCAF and Human Rights Watch, the military council said their problem is not with criticism, but rather with accusations. This is why they have summoned journalists and media staff for a cup of coffee to talk with them about those accusations.

The rights organisation has noticed some changes for the better, however, since the Egyptian revolution. “During this visit I was able to meet up with different officials who were interested in human rights, opposite to what took place during Mubarak’s era,” Roth said.

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