Amnesty International's Shetty: we're here to show solidarity

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 25 Jun 2011

Amnesty International head Salil Shetty tells Ahram Online he has reasons for optimism about Egypt's future, despite continuing human rights concerns

Salil Shetty
Salil Shetty

This afternoon (Saturday), at the headquarters of the Press Syndicate in downtown Cairo, Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International (AI), and an accompanying delegation that has been on a near week-long visit to Egypt will give a press conference to share AI's assessment of Egypt close to five months after Hosni Mubarak stepped down from the presidency.

The purpose of the visit, Shetty told Ahram Online Friday, was to lend support to Egypt, particularly the Egyptian people, in their efforts to build a democratic state wherein human rights are respected after they toppled the dictatorial rule of Mubarak.

"In Egypt, ordinary people made an extraordinary thing for which they took great personal risk. We are here to show solidarity," Shetty said.

But the extraordinary story that Egyptians started writing on 25 January, according to the AI head, is still unfinished. Egypt, which passed 30 years of considerable and then gross human rights violations under Mubarak, according to Shetty, still needs take steps towards positive reform, including ending the detention of all political prisoners, annulling restrictions imposed on the media, and guaranteeing full freedom of movement, assembly and expression, which requires an end to emergency law and to military trials.

"During the 30 years of Mubarak's rule, the archives of Amnesty International were full of reports on the violations committed in Egypt," said Shelly as he remembers a letter that was sent to the toppled president a little over a week after he assumed office, in the wake of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on 6 October 1981, to ask him "to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors".

Signed on 5 November 1981 by then AI Deputy Secretary-General Dick Oosting, the letter called on Mubarak to end the imprisonment and persecution of political activists and to abolish legislation that put unfair constraints on the freedoms of individuals. "But Mubarak did not just ignore this demand, he also made much worse mistakes than his predecessor," Shetty said Friday.

For the AI head, now that Mubarak is gone the question becomes how to ensure that those mistakes do not reoccur under the rule of any future president or within the context of whatever political system prevails.

With the minister of interior, the assistant foreign minister and the deputy prime minister, as with NGOs and activists, Shelly examined what could be done to help Egypt "make a clean break" with the abuses of the past. For Shetty, this break has not been made yet, judging by the fact that civilians are still being referred to military courts and that there is "no transparency" in the trials of the figures of the Mubarak regime who are accused of human rights violations. In addition, the families of the victims of these abuses and the media have hardly any access to these trials, including the trial of the former Minister of Interior Habib El-Adly.

"It is a tough job," Shetty acknowledged, especially in view of demanding security concerns, which are a priority. "But expectations are very high, and rightly so, because the people of Egypt sacrificed a lot." The AI head also met with the victims of police brutality during the revolution, and with the families of those killed while peacefully demonstrating against the Mubarak regime.

"The job has not ended … the people have to remain vigilant … because Mubarak is gone but the situation is not [fully] changed," he stated.

Still, Shetty is hopeful that a break from the past is around the corner. Every official he met with, though he did not meet any representative of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which declined the request for an audience submitted by AI, promised that the break from the past would be made.

"The minister of interior said that there will be no more torture, no more disappearances of individuals, and no more detention [without trials]," Shetty said. The minister of interior also said that "all violations" committed during the days of the revolution would be referred to court, "if there is evidence".

The minister of interior additionally promised that the work and apparatus of the new National Security Service, which replaces the notorious State Security Investigations agency, would be designed to steer clear from violations, and that "when the draft law for its work is ready, the Ministry of Interior would consult with the concerned human rights groups".

Meanwhile, the assistant foreign minister told the Shetty that Egypt is aiming to join the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and is also acting to join the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture.
"The issue now is to make sure that they keep their promise," Shetty said. He added that an AI follow-up operation and reports should contribute the necessary pressure to make sure that all promises are kept.

During his meetings with Egyptian officials, Shetty also examined issues of discrimination, especially against women, in light of the fact that it was AI that broke the story of the virginity tests military police subjected a group of women activists to when they declined to leave Tahrir Square weeks after Mubarak stepped down. "We need an investigation of this matter, this is what I told the officials I met with," Shetty said.

The rights of non-Muslims was also on the agenda of talks Shetty held in Egypt, and again he heard some positive promises that his organisation would follow up on. An end to discrimination against the poor is also crucial, the AI secretary general reminded his Egyptian interlocutors.

"We are issuing a report in two weeks about people living in informal settlements … because the violation of the right to adequate housing cannot be overlooked," said Shetty who argued that the combination of "poverty, inequality, unemployment, corruption and repression" has to fully come to an end if Egypt is to make a fresh start, and which could make it positively influence developments in the region, especially in Libya that Shetty says is scene to gross violations, and in Syria that AI is arguing should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

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