In May this year, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was elected President. This marked the completion of the second phase in the roadmap announced following the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The last six months in Egypt have also seen the continuation of terrorist attacks and growing instability in the region.
We continue to have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Egypt, particularly in the areas of freedom of expression and assembly. The large numbers of confirmed death sentences issued by courts in the last six months, and the prison sentences given to Egyptian and international journalists in June, were worrying developments.
On 24 March 2014, a criminal court in Minya sentenced 529 people to death, the majority in absentia. The verdict was issued following a session that lasted just under an hour and which did not allow the defence sufficient opportunity to present its case. In a separate case, the same court delivered death sentences to a further 683 people in similar circumstances. 220 of these sentences have now been confirmed, with others commuted to life imprisonment. All the sentences remain subject to appeal. These two cases are the most prominent, but death penalties have been issued in a number of other cases over the last six months. On 21 June, the then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, expressed his concern over the confirmed sentences in Minya, and urged the Egyptian authorities to ensure that human and legal rights were upheld. Also in June, the death penalty was carried out in Egypt for the first time since 2010; ten people were executed for crimes including murder and kidnapping.
On April 7, a court of appeal in Cairo upheld the sentencing of three activists to three years in prison with hard labour and a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately £4,400) each. The activists, Ahmed Maher, and Mohammed Adel (founders of the April 6 Movement), and Ahmed Douma, had been detained since November 2013. Their case was the first time that protestors had been prosecuted under the new protest law passed in November 2013. On 28 April, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters issued a decision banning the April 6 Movement. The UK government welcomes the recent release of a small number of human rights activists, including those detained under the protest law, but we remain concerned at the large number of people that remain in detention.
In September 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron raised with President al-Sisi his concerns about the large numbers of people in custody, and the widespread use of death penalty.
Presidential elections took place on 26-28 May with a turnout of 47%. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi won with 96% of the vote. Staff from the British Embassy in Cairo took part in the EU’s electoral observation mission. The EU mission found that the election was conducted in line with the law. However, in some respects, it fell short of compliance with the principles set out in Egypt’s constitution and applicable international standards for democratic elections. It noted that the rights to vote and to stand for all citizens were not fully protected by the current legal framework. The EU mission also reflected concern about the Egyptian public’s ability to express political dissent and exercise freedom of speech or association.
On 4 June, outgoing interim President Adly Mansur passed a decree which criminalised sexual harassment for the first time. The decree has since been implemented and used successfully to prosecute offenders, but violence against women continues to be a concern in Egypt. Incidents of sexual assaults took place in Tahrir Square during President Al-Sisi’s inauguration, with one particularly shocking case attracting substantial media attention after being filmed. President al-Sisi visited the victim in hospital and has declared the issue a matter of national honour. On Monday 8 July, the National Council for Women (a state body mandated to oversee laws related to women) launched a National Strategy to combat gender-based violence. The UK supports women’s political and economic participation through the Arab Partnership, and organised a number of events in Egypt around our Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict.
On 23 June, a court in Cairo sentenced a group of Egyptian and international journalists to between seven and ten years’ imprisonment on charges that included spreading false news. Two British journalists, Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, were tried in absentia, and given ten-year sentences. British Embassy staff attended most sessions of the trial, with the Ambassador attending the verdict. Mr Hague made a statement in which he said he was appalled by the verdicts, and urged the Egyptian government to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression by reviewing this case as a matter of urgency. On the same day, the Egyptian Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). FCO Political Director, Sir Simon Gass, told the Egyptian Ambassador that the UK government was deeply concerned by the verdicts, along with the procedural shortcomings seen during the trials. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, raised this issue with President al-Sisi during his visit to Cairo in July 2014, pressing for clemency and assurances that due legal process will be respected in the appeal process.
In June, Amnesty International released a report alleging that up to 400 civilians are being held without charge at the Azouli prison in Ismailia, with no access to their lawyers or families. The report claims that torture and other forms of ill-treatment are being used as a means of extracting confessions. Representatives of the British Embassy in Cairo raised the issue of Azouli prison with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 24 June. The European Union made a statement at the 26th UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in June regarding the treatment of prisoners in Egypt. The statement expressed concern at the continued detention of thousands of Egyptian citizens, many of whom were detained on unclear grounds, and the conditions under which they are detained. The UK also called for the release of detained journalists and activists in our UNHRC statement.
A draft of a new NGO law remains under discussion between the Ministry for Social Solidarity and NGOs operating in Egypt. This is a crucial document in supporting the development of a free and vibrant civil society. The UK continues to lobby for an NGO law that conforms to international standards, and we have previously raised our concerns at the UNHRC. On 18 July, the Egyptian government set a deadline of 45 days for NGOs to register with the Ministry of Social Solidarity under the old NGO law or face dissolution. Many NGOs have expressed concern that this could affect their ability to operate freely. The deadline for registration has now been extended by a further 45 days.
14 August saw the one-year anniversary of the dispersal of protests in Rabaa-al Addawya and Al-Nahda Squares in Cairo. Accounts of the numbers killed during these operations vary. The Interior Ministry has stated that 493 civilians and 13 policemen were killed. Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights reported in March that 622 civilians and eight policemen were killed, while Human Rights Watch estimated in August that the total number of civilians killed was over a thousand. UK ministers have continued to call for an independent investigation into the operations to disperse the sit-ins, and an investigation into the death of a British journalist who was shot by a sniper on 14 August. The Egyptian government’s Fact-Finding Commission is expected to present its findings to the President in November.
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