Egypt draft constitution fails to protect key human rights: HRW

AFP, Monday 8 Oct 2012

Human Right Watch warns Egypt's constitution threatens basic human rights of freedom of speech and religion, allows torture, turns back the clock on women's rights

Egypt draft constitution
Abd Elrahman Elbar (L) and Saeed Abd Elazeem, members of the committee drafting Egypt’s new constitution, speak at the Shura Council in Cairo, September 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

A draft Egyptian constitution heavily influenced by Islamist conservatives contains articles that could pose a serious threat to basic human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.

A 100-strong panel picked in June and headed by senior judge Hossam al-Ghariani has been tasked with drafting the new constitution, after the old charter was suspended following the 2011 uprising which toppled Hosni Mubarak.

"The constituent assembly has a landmark opportunity to lay the groundwork for respecting human rights in tomorrow's Egypt," said Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"But its current draft fails to meet that standard because of vague language or limitations that destroy the essence of many rights."

While the draft upholds some civil, political, social and economic rights, "other key provisions are inconsistent with international human rights standards and would pose a serious threat to the future of human rights in Egypt," the New York-based rights group said in a statement.

It said Article 5 of the draft failed to ban torture, Article 36 threatened equality between men and women, while Article 9 -- still under negotiation -- "would amount to a serious threat to freedom of speech and religion."

The 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak and changed the course of the Arab world's most populous nation was largely driven by popular anger at police impunity.

"The failure to fully prohibit torture is especially surprising given the fact that anger against police abuse played a central role in the January 2011 uprising," HRW said.

Another cause for concern was Article 36 which has already prompted several demonstrations by women's rights activists.

The article says the state will ensure equality between men and women as long is it does not contradict the "rulings of Islamic Sharia."

It also says that a woman will "reconcile between her duties toward the family and her work in society," according to the draft reviewed by HRW.

"This provision is inconsistent with the provision in the same chapter that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex," the rights watchdog said.

Salafist pressure 

An article that explicitly bans trafficking of women and children was removed after pressure from the Salafist members of the assembly, HRW said.

Some members of the constituent assembly have also discussed lowering the legal age of marriage, which is currently 18 in Egypt, "to 16 or even 9", it said.

"It is particularly reprehensible that committee members should bow to pressure to exclude language criminalising trafficking of women and children when this is not only a serious crime under international law but also under Egyptian law, and is clearly happening," Houri said.

Another article proposes to limit the construction of places of worship to followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, "thereby excluding followers of non-Abrahamic religions, particularly Bahais," HRW said.

Article 9 that deals with blasphemy and which has not yet been included in the draft states that: "The divine being is protected and any criticism thereof is prohibited, as are the prophets of God and all of his messengers, the mothers of the faithful and the rightly guided caliphs."

"Such a provision would in particular endanger Egypt's Shiites, Muslims who hold different interpretations than the majority Sunnis regarding the 'rightly guided caliphs'," HRW said.

Ghariani has said that the constitution was expected to be ready by November, after which it will be put to a national referendum.

But rights groups and secular political activists say they fear the Islamists, who dominate the constituent assembly, will use their grassroots influence and organisational skills to push for a yes vote.

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