Arrested protesters languish in Egypt's detention cells

Mariam Rizk and Passant Darwish, Monday 10 Mar 2014

Hundreds of people arrested at protests in recent months remain in prison cells with no sign of trial or release

Prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah on trial in 2013 (Photo: Al-Ahram)

"There's no sense of law, no hope in the constitution and no value in the courts. We will stay here until they finish their damned roadmap," wrote Alaa Abdel-Fattah from a prison cell, almost a hundred days after he was arrested on charges of illegal protesting.

Longtime blogger and rights campaigner Abdel-Fattah, who has been detained several times since the 2011 revolution, was arrested last November at his home on charges of breaking a newly issued protest law.

The controversial legislation, passed by Egypt's transitional authorities in November, allows public demonstrations only if organisers have notified police three days in advance. Violators of the law face fines and prison terms.

Abdel-Fattah, along with other activists, organised a protest in central Cairo on 26 November, to denounce the subjection of civilians to military trials. The protest was dispersed by police, and although Abdel-Fattah was not arrested at the time, police came to his home two days later, armed with an arrest warrant.  

Of the dozens arrested for participating in the protest, only Abdel-Fattah and fellow activist Ahmed Abdel-Rahman remain in custody today.

To date, they have spent more than three months in detention, with no trial date yet in sight.  

Abdel-Fattah's family, along with dozens of activists and friends, gathered at the Cairo High Court on Sunday to demand the two men’s release. Abdel-Fattah's relatives have also lodged a complaint against the prosecutor-general with the Supreme Judicial Council.

Arrested at home

"Alaa, Ahmed and thousands of young people are in prison so that the revolution of 25 January 2011 may be extinguished; so that the young don't think any more of revolution," Ahdaf Soueif, a prominent novelist and Abdel-Fattah's aunt wrote on Facebook recently.

Mona Seif, Abdel-Fattah's sister and a founding member of the No to Military Trials campaign, told Ahram Online about the day that her brother was arrested.

"Police stormed his house...and beat up him and his wife. He was dragged out of the house with bare feet, and their laptops were seized," she told Ahram Online during a protest on Sunday calling for his release.

"We did not even know where he was being held for the first 24 hours," she added.

Abdel-Fattah has had his detention period officially extended twice, most recently in December when he was referred to court. Since then he has remained in jail without seeing a judge or hearing word of a trial date.

Osama El-Mahdy, a rights lawyer who represents the detained men, told Ahram Online that the detainees were not being treated fairly.

"There's obstinacy in this specific case," he said.

Reasons for detention 'not valid'

A new movement called Freedom for the Brave, launched to defend detained protesters and demand their release, said in a statement last week that this kind of detention was caused by a "black hole" in the law.

"Without identifying a judicial circuit to look into the case, there is no judicial body able to issue a decision to release prisoners, not even the prosecutor-general," the group said in a statement last week.

Abdel-Fattah and Abdel-Rahman are just two of hundreds of people detained in recent months whose detentions have been renewed repeatedly with no sign of a trial or a release.

"The nature of the law is to protect human freedom…remand detention should be an exception in specific cases assigned by law," Rafaat Fouda, a professor of law at Cairo University told Ahram Online.

The cases, according to Fouda, include those where suspects may abscond, where their freedom may affect the ongoing investigation in some way through witnesses or evidence, or those in which suspects do not have fixed and known places of residence in Egypt.

Amr Imam, a human rights lawyer at the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, agrees that detention is a problematic issue.

"The reasons for remand detention are limited, and not valid in most of the cases we see," he said.

Detention as 'a new form of abuse'

Freedom for the Brave has highlighted the danger of misuse of detention, warned in its statement that it can sometimes be deployed as a punishment, describing it as "a new form of abuse."

Egyptian law used to stipulate that the period of pre-trial detention should not exceed one-third of the maximum penalty for the charge the suspect is being tried on, to a maximum of six months for misdemeanours, 18 months for felonies and two years for crimes carrying life imprisonment.

Following an amendment to the law in September last year, detention in cases carrying the death penalty or life in jail can now be renewed indefinitely.

This amendment came after former president Hosni Mubarak was released from prison in August 2013 after serving a two year maximum detention period for a variety of trials, appeals and retrials.  

The problem, activists say, is when the law is used as a political punishment rather than a legal procedure for investigation.

"After the revolution, authorities used it as a replacement for the emergency law and for political detention," Imam said.

According to the rights lawyer, at least 1,200 people were detained at protests and clashes on 25 January, the anniversary of the 2011 revolution, and nearly half of them are still detained pending investigation.

In one case monitored by Imam, detainee Ahmed Ayman was arrested in the summer of 2013 and has been detained pending investigation for over six months.

'No political prisoners in Egypt'

Amid outrage from rights groups and political movements following the January arrests, interim President Adly Mansour urged the country’s top prosecutor to look into the status of those detained pending investigation, university students in particular.

Mansour then requested a list of those allegedly arrested randomly without charge and said those proven to be innocent would be released.

In response, Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat denied that Egyptian prisons hold any political detainees and stressed that all detentions are "in accordance with the country's criminal law and are not subject to any exceptional legislation."

However, in recent weeks prosecutors have ordered the release of dozens of detained students.

"The swift and fair judiciary should look into cases quickly… and either refer them to court or [release them]. The judge should not renew the detention haphazardly," law professor Fouad argues.

"Detention in nature is a form of punishment. Doing it with no justification contradicts the basic of freedoms, rights and dignity stressed in the [new] constitution," he said.

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