Saturday, December 24, 2005

Ayman Nour sentenced to five years in jail

As expected, an Egyptian court convicted Ayman Nour of charges related to his party's political activities and sentenced him to five years in jail. Many human rights activists believe these charges were politically motivated. The U.S. government expressed its concern over the trial and the sentence. Nour, who is diabetic, could face a difficult imprisonment and an end of his political career just months after he came in second place in the presidential election.

Since I mentioned how American media were avoiding the Ayman Nour trial, I should credit the excellent Washington Post editorial on the trial yesterday. It's a strong piece, stating that the trial is a test case for the development of Egyptian democracy.

I disagree with the editorial in the sense that the damage by the trial has already been made. Nour could walk away a free man, and we should hope he will, but that will not be a positive sign for Egyptian democracy because the trial has already served the purpose of building a significant obstacle to political opposition to the ruling elite.

Why that is is made clear in today's Post, in an op-ed piece by noted Egyptian journalist Hala Mustafa of the Al-Ahram Foundation. Mustafa discusses how the Egyptian security forces control the politics of the NDP and much of the media and through this control have consistently thwarted any efforts to bring true democracy to the country. I encourage everyone to read the piece. It is another sign of the aspirations of the true democrats in the country and the obstacles they face in achieving their goals.

One note I would add to Mustafa's piece: He mentions how the security forces selected many of the NDP candidates. He doesn't, presumably because of space limitations, go into the successes the security forces had in defeating the legitimate, secular opposition candidates, such as Ayman Nour, as well as "reformist" candidates within the NDP. The defeat of Nour and other opponents can be directly related not to the degree of support he and others had but to the sheer size of the campaign launched against him by the security-controlled media and political system. Likewise the lack of this government-support doomed the so-called reformist wing of the NDP allegedly tied to Gamal Mubarak.

And of course, when this effort opened the door to the success of the Muslim Brothers, the security forces launched their well-documented assault on them as well.

All this actually supports Mustafa's thesis: There are strong voices for Egyptian democracy in the country, voices that speak from a wide range of opinions. Some of these voices actually exist within the government. The security wing of the Egyptian government is stubborn in its resistence to change. The attacks on Nour show the degree to which they are willing to silence the political opposition. Their aim is to make it seem like the choice is between the NDP and the Muslim Brothers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Human Rights Groups Come to Ayman Nour's Assistance

A coalition of Egyptian human rights groups has released an announcement calling for the release of Ayman Nour. Here is their statement.

"A delegation of representatives of 14 human rights organizations today went to meet with the Public Prosecutor at the High Court House to demand the release of Mr. Ayman Nour, Chairman of the Ghad Party in view of the deterioration of his health condition upon his hunger strike since the 11thof December 2005. The petition submitted by the organizations referred to the health problems of Mr. Nour, each of which constitutes a major danger to his life. Mr. Nour suffers hypertension, Diabetes Mellitus and gastric ulcer. His hunger strike caused a worrying rise in the acetone level of his blood.

The Public Prosecutor informed the delegation that he has contacted the public attorney for South Cairo and has referred the petition to him to be presented from there to the relevant court. He also stated that the procedures indicating that Mr. Nour has already been condemned have been withdrawn from his file and that Mr. Nour will be treated as “under temporary arrest”. He also issued his orders allowing his private doctor to examine him and follow up his management in hospital, allowing Mr. Nour exceptional visits.

The arrival of the delegation at the Court house was met by a large gathering of antiriot and state security intelligence police who held the delegation for half an hour preventing it from meeting the public prosecutor."

News reports today indicated that intravenous fluids are making a difference. BBC reported Nour's condition is improving. The Middle East Times noted his hospitalization in a news brief. The American press, however, has been quiet. It's latest mantra seems to be that the secular opposition such as Ayman Nour is old news and that the Muslim Brothers remain the only credible opposition.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Update III on Ayman Nour trial

Family members reported over the weekend that former presidential candidate Ayman Nour has been moved to a prison hospital on the sixth day of his hunger strike. Nour is protesting his detention during his trial on charges of election-related forgeries, charges that many human rights activists believe to be politically motivated.

Nour's condition deteriorated over the weekend and he is in danger of slipping into a coma, family members reported. He is diabetic, and his condition can worsen the effects of the hunger strike. Nour's wife said doctors are asking to provide him with fluids intravenously, an issue that the family is expected to make a decision on shortly.

Nour's trial is expected to resume on Dec. 24, and a verdict may come then. He is facing up to 15 years in jail.

To write a letter of support to Nour, mail it to him at
Turrah prison-Zeraa cell,
Turra, Autostrade, Maadi

Friday, December 16, 2005

Human Rights Defender: Dr. Susan Fayad

Continuing on the topic of torture, I want to take a moment to highlight the work done by just one Egypt human rights defender, Dr. Susan Fayad, who in turn works with many other HRDs in the field. Torture may be systematic in Egypt, but there is no lack of opposition to it within the country.

Dr. Susan Fayad, medical director of the El Nadim Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture in Egypt. Founded in 1993, the center has offered long-term treatment and psychological rehabilitation for the victims of violence. This includes victims of torture in Egypt, where torture is systematic, refugees from the violence in Sudan and domestic violence victims. The center’s work with refugees is particularly valuable at a time when Sudan struggles with a human rights crisis.

The importance of the work of Dr. Fayad and the El Nadim Center has long been recognized by Amnesty International, other human rights groups and NGOs within Egypt. For example, the center’s work was noted in Amnesty’s report “Egypt: Women Targeted by Association

To put the work in context, let me to discuss the prevalence of torture in Egypt. Information gathered by Amnesty International over the past two decades as well as by other Egyptian and international human rights organizations through interviews with victims and their relatives, medical examinations and judgments by Egypt's own criminal and civil courts constitutes an irrefutable body of evidence of the entrenched nature of the pattern of torture in Egypt. Political prisoners are subject to torture, but the practice extends to prisoners of all kinds and ages, from 14-year-old boys accused of stealing bicycles to young actresses in a dispute with a police officer. In May 1996 the Committee against Torture concluded that torture was systematically practiced in Egypt.

Impunity for the torturers is widespread. Despite hundreds if not thousands of allegations of torture, Egyptian officials have brought charges against only a handful of police and security officials, who if convicted are given minimal sentences that in some cases are never served. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no public investigation and no discussion of results. While Egyptian officials claim that torture is illegal in the country, State of Emergency legislation in effect since 1981 allow for long-term and incommunicado detention without charge or trial, practices that Amnesty believes enable and even encourage the use of torture. In a country where public discussion of torture is difficult, the center’s annual report giving details and names (with the victims’ permissions) is a critical and damning resource against those who would stop all debate.

In a statement given to Front Lines, a human rights defenders group, Dr. Fayad said she and others founded El Nadim to take effective action against torture. That meant working with doctors to train them in collecting information that would substantiate claims of torture and to help the patient. Rather than waiting at the center for patients and doctors to come to them, Fayad said the group makes an aggressive outreach effort.

“Very early in its history, El Nadim group has taken its decision to get out of closed clinics and into broader circles, as the victims of torture are spread along the map of police stations, and present in all quarters of Cairo and other governorates,” Fayad said. “We have tried all the time to widen the circle of intellectuals, media people, members of the people’s assembly and local leaderships in poorer neighborhoods about the issue. All over that time, our belief that we should go to victims of violence wherever they are as the method most effective to reach them and offer them the needed service was affirmed, because victims of torture most probably fall in the pit of isolation, physical and psychological pain and fear injected by the torturers – of what might happen – if he or she divulged the secret. That is why they need someone to look for them, reach them, assure, encourage and support them. It is also impossible to remove the humiliation of the victims and grant them their justified desire in punishing the torturers without giving them back their credit in front of the whole society. And if reaching out for them directly is a part of giving them back that credit, it is never complete without giving them the reports that prove torture to be submitted to jurisdiction and organizing campaigns for their aid, as we will clarify later.”

The center has also been an important resource for the protection and care of women who have been subject to domestic violence, including female genital mutilation. Again their active outreach programs into poor neighborhoods have been important in providing women help in an area where it is still difficult to have public discourse.

All of this has been done under the watchful eye of the Egyptian government. On July 11, 2004, a committee of inspection from the Ministry of Health visited the Nadim Center for the Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. Amnesty International has received information that the three members of the committee acted in an “aggressive and abusive” manner and transgressed its legal duties.

On July 19, 2004, the center received a letter from the Ministry of Health accusing it of a number of breaches of a law governing NGOs and giving it a period of 30 days to correct them or be held accountable before the law. According to the law, the authorities can close down the center for as long as they continue to find “major breaches.”

The most serious accusation waged against the center relates to the center carrying out unauthorized activities as a medical establishment. The suspicion is that this allegation relates to their publication of information related to government-sponsored torture, but we can’t be clear on that because details were never given.

Since the visit of the government authorities, the center remains open. But the threat of government closure remains. The Egyptian government can use their authority over NGOs to restrict their work. But despite the threat, the center continues its work. In June 2005, the center published its annual report on torture and highlighted more than three dozen cases of torture, including several where the prisoner died in detention. The report also included information about torture of suspected Islamists rendered back to Egypt by third parties. This of course is an extremely important topic right now, and the work of NGOs within the countries of rendition is essential to the rest of the world knowing about these facts.

One last thing: It is more important now than ever to highlight the examples of the human rights defenders in the Middle East, particularly women. The debate over whether human rights is indigenous to the region and to the Islamic religion and needs to be exported is a potent one. Clearly, the work of Dr. Susan Fayad, as well as of many others, shows that the spirit of human rights is as strong in the region as anywhere. There has been promising progress in the past few years, including in Egypt. Too often, we are putting credit for those partial advances to the West, but in fact whatever success comes, it is primarily because of the work of the people on the ground in these countries. We must learn their names.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The lessons of torture

America is finally having a debate on torture.Intellectuals and journalists such as Charles Krauthammer are stepping forward and forcing it. As long as the Bush Administration denied that America is engaging in torture (but at the same time pushing policies that would enable and even encourage it), this debate could not happen. It requires someone to say, “It is necessary to torture sometimes.” Now that is happening, a real discussion can be held.

So while I applaud Mr. Krauthammer and others for having the courage to state what others have tried to deny, I have to strongly disagree with him. Anyone who cares about Egyptian human rights must disagree with him because Egypt can teach us a thing about torture. The lesson here is, you may think that it’s acceptable to torture terrorists, but you end up with a process where torture is systematic, and everyone is vulnerable.

This is often derided as a “slippery-slope” argument, but there is no philosophical hair-splitting. Torture occurs in Egypt because State of Emergency legislation – enacted following the assassination of Sadat – enables and encourages it. The purpose of this legislation is to stop violent activities by armed groups. The mechanisms it sets up – special courts, prolonged administrative detention, detention without access to family or attorneys – were set up to fight terrorism. This is why the CIA allegedly kidnapped Egyptian national Osama Nasr Mostafa, and drugged him and flew him to Egypt to be tortured. Mostafa allegedly has ties to armed groups and apparently was closed to be arrested by Italian officials at the time of his abduction. That is one reality of torture, one many people clearly can live with.

Here is another reality:

“They accused us of stealing bicycles and said that we had formed a gang to steal bicycles. When we denied this and told them that we had not done those things, they tortured us and they did bad things to us. They beat me with a cane and gave me electric shocks.”

These are the words of a 14-year-old Egyptian boy, Ahmad Mahmud Mohammad Hamed, a student at a secondary school in al-Zaqaziq, Egypt. On 26 March 2000 Ahmad and his 26-year-old brother Mustafa were arrested by police officers at their home. They were taken to the police station of al-Zaqaziq’s second precinct along with a teenage friend. This is a beginning of a nightmare which continues to haunt the boy.

Following a brief questioning, they said they were taken to a cold room, referred to as al-Tallaga (the fridge), where they were left for about half an hour. From there, the youths were taken for interrogation one by one, beginning with Ahmad.

Ahmad said he was blindfolded, his legs and arms were tied and he was suspended by his knees on a horizontal pole. In this position, he was whipped and subjected to electric shocks for about 30 minutes until he lost consciousness. Ahmad was coerced into signing a confession regarding several cases of theft. After signing the confession Ahmad was returned to the Tallaga. After all three young men had been tortured and coerced into signing a confession they were taken back to the custody cell.

Here is yet another reality:

When she entered a Cairo cab on Feb. 8, 2002, Umm Hashim Abu al-‘Izz was going visiting with a friend. Within hours, she was on the floor of the Agouza police station in Cairo being beaten over her face by a police officer with a belt.

“What happened to me was something I could never have imagined,” Abu al-‘Izz, a young Egyptian actress, told Amnesty International. When her cab driver was stopped by the police and failed to produce required document, the driver and all passengers were taken to the police station. At the station, Abu al-‘Izz protested. The police response was immediate.

“He took off his belt and began to beat me … on the side of my face. So I lost my balance and fell to the ground unconscious. Instead of leaving me he brought dirty water and poured it over me to revive me. He told me to stand so I did and then I found he was beating me with the belt again. Of course, he didn't stop until my mouth was bleeding and my eyes were messed up and my whole body was in a terrible state and I wasn't even able to get up off the ground. Then he kicked and punched me. He pointed his gun at me as if to kill me and he threatened to do so. He put the gun into my side and pulled the trigger but it turned out to be empty...”

Of course, occurrences such as these happen in America already, all too regularly. But there are still legal processes in place that stops torturers and even bring them to justice. The difference so far in Egypt, the difference that makes torture systematic, is there is no impunity for torturers. Despite frequent requests for public investigations into allegations of torture, the number of arrests of policemen and security officials can probably be counted on one hand. Torturers do their work knowing that they will not be punished.

A few months after the 9/11 attacks, I was in attendance when the Egyptian ambassador to the United States came to speak at my university. “Listen to us,” said Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, “we know how to fight terrorism.” But the Egypt experience shows the rules of torture may start to fight armed groups, but it always ends up going after 14-year-old kids.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Update II on Ayman Nour trial

Family members today reported that Ghad political party leader Ayman Nour, who came in second place in last fall's presidential election, has gone on a hunger strike to protest conditions of his detention. Nour faces charges of forging names on election petitions and faces up to 15 years in jail. Nour and some human rights activists believe the charges are politically motivated to silence political opposition.

The BBC reported today that the trial has been adjorned until Dec. 24 when a verdict will be expected. Nour had been out on bail until the middle of the trial when the judge abruptly ordered that he be placed in detention. Family members sent out a message today raising concerns about his detention and stating he is being treated as a convicted prisoner rather than a detainee on trial.

The Washington Post is closely following the trial. It's editorial opinion is that the Nour trial is representative of the government's pre-election strategy of silencing all moderate and secular political opposition. That strategy backfired, the Post suggests, when it paved the way for the Muslim Brothers to make their strong showing in the elections. Belatedly, security forces decided to act in the last round of the elections to stop further gain by the Muslim Brothers.

The message that comes out of all of this, and I've know I'm repeating a previous post, is that engagement with the Egyptian political opposition means recognition of the strength of the Muslim Brothers; they remain the largest and most organized of the opposition groups. At the same time, as the strength of Nour's showing the presidential election and the actions of the government against him and others show, the Egyptian opposition is a rich and diverse groups that includes lawyers and other professionals, human rights activists, political democrats, economic liberals, socialists, secularists, intellectuals and others. The government wants us to think it's them vs. the Muslim Brothers. We know better.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Amnesty International statement on Egyptian election violence

"Amnesty International is calling on the Egyptian government to launch an urgent, independent investigation into police shootings outside polling stations on 7 December which left at least eight people dead and tens more injured. The organization said the investigation should focus on the circumstances in which police used lethal fire and ensure that any officers or other officials responsible for using or ordering excessive force should be brought to justice.

"The killings occurred when police fired into crowds of people who wished to gain access to polling stations in al-Daqahlia, al-Sharqia and other areas in order to cast their votes in run-offs to the third and last phase of Egypt's parliamentary elections. The polling stations concerned had been closed or cordoned off by the police. As well as live fire, police used tear gas and rubber bullets in their efforts to disperse the crowds. Those killed were named as Sa'eed al-Deghidi, Sha'aban Abu Rabaa' and 'Atif Ahmed from Damietta, Tamir al-Qamash and Mohammed al-Bahrawy from al-Daqahlia and Mostafa 'Abd al-Salam, Mohammed 'Aliwa and Mohammed Gazzar from al-Sharqia. Those injured included 15-year-old ''Izzat Ra'fat Seddiq from al-Duqahlia, who was one of a number of people who received gunshot injuries or were wounded by being struck by tear gas bombs.

"Police also arrested scores of relatives, delegates and supporters of opposition candidates or prevented them from entering polling stations, and closed more than one hundred polling stations in areas known to be opposition strongholds. For example, police reportedly prevented any voting at polling stations at Kum al-Nur village, al-Daqahlia, where government opponent Shafiq al-Deeb was standing as an independent candidate."

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Update on Ayman Nour

Ayman Nour, the leader of the Ghad (Tommorrow) political party, who came in second place in this fall's presidential election, was detained this week during his trial on forgery and other charges. Amnesty International has expressed concerns that the charges -- which have to do with the collection of names on an election petition -- are politically motivated.

According to Nour family members, the detention occurred before the defense completed its case in the trial. According to Ayman's lawyer, Amir Salim, the detention was a sign the court intended to convict Mr Nour when their trial on forgery charges resumes next week. Ayman could be sentenced to a maximum of 15 years.

Nour lost his parliamentary seat in the current parliamentary elections. After coming in second in the presidential balloting, the ruling NDP targeted Nour's seat, and political observers were not surprised that he failed to win under the circumstances; Nour alleged fraud and misconduct in the election.

For a previous Amnesty International statement on Nour's detention, click here.

Monday, December 05, 2005

U.S. Forced Renditions

Amnesty International today issued another statement on the issue of forced renditions either to secret bases or to third countries, such as Egypt. In both situations, we are are concerned that the renditions increase the possibility that prisoners will be tortured. We have documented torture in several cases.

"Amnesty International today revealed that six planes used by the CIA for renditions have made some 800 flights in or out of European airspace including 50 landings at Shannon airport in the Republic of Ireland. The information contradicts assurances given last week by the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, that Ireland's Shannon airport had not been used for "untoward" purposes, or as a transit point for terror suspects.

The organization also rejected assertions by the U.S. Secretary of State as she began a four-nation tour of Europe. In a statement today, Ms. Rice argued that rendition—transferring detainees from country to country without legal process—was permissible under international law. Although the victims of rendition usually end up in countries known to use torture in their interrogations, Rice added that the U.S. government seeks assurances on treatment from receiving nations.

“These flight records provide irrefutable proof that the United States is ‘disappearing’ people into secret facilities where they are held incommunicado without charge, trial or access to the outside world and/or rendering them to countries with a history of barbaric torture practices,” said Amnesty International USA Executive Director Dr. William F. Schulz. “Secretary Rice is either misinformed or is part of an ongoing orchestrated effort by the Administration to mislead the American people and the world community. The evidence is glaring – the United States is outsourcing torture and using legal jargon to justify its actions.

“How many more new flight plans, disturbing photos and “black sites” must we and others expose before Congress acts? Amnesty International is urging Capitol Hill to create an independent commission to investigate all aspects of U.S. detention and interrogation practices.”

For the full statement, click here.

Amnesty previously had raised concerns about the abduction of Egyptian national Osama Nasr Mostafa from Italy. He allegedly was drugged and taken to a U.S. military base in Germany and then flown to Egypt, where he was allegedly tortured by Egyptian officials.

Amnesty also previous condemned the late-night forcible deportation of two Egyptians from Sweden to Egypt, where they were allegedly tortured. News reports indicated that American intelligence officials were present at the deportation.

The Election in Perspective

A few days after the past round of parliamentary elections, a common perception is appearing among democracy activists in Egypt: The elections were unfair and marred by massive arrests and violence on the part of security officials, but still the performance of the Egyptian public in resisting continued one-party rule gives reasons for optimism. Says one representative of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Developmental Studies, "It's
not a bad start for Egyptian democracy."

Let's start with the problems. On Friday, Dec. 2, the Independent Committee for Election Monitoring, a group of 16 Egyptian NGOs, released it's preliminary report on the past round of the election. It cited the government failed to provide a free and safe haven for voting; failed to create a transparent election process free from the possibility of fraud; and prevented election monitors from adequately performing their job. The ICEM received numerous reports of violence, "almost exclusively in districts where opposition candidates were seeking seats in Kafr Sheikh, Daqahleya and Sharqiah. At several sites, ICEM monitors themselves were attacked by security forces, the report said.

The mass arrest of Muslim Brothers and Nasserites also was a factor. I have received preliminary reports of additional arrests, which I hope to have a report on tomorrow. The ICEM estimated voter turnout at 18 percent, an exceedingly low figure, and it attributes that to the violence and the "organized disenfranchizement" of large segments of the population.

But if we focus exclusively on the negative aspects of the election, we will miss a larger point. The Egyptian people have for the first time voted in a political minority large enough to prevent the NDP from turning parliament into a complete rubber stamp. Even the fact of the low turnout suggests that where real opposition wasn't a possibility, the voters "voted with their feet." There is little in this election that gives the NDP much ground for strength. The division within the NDP and the government between reformers and the security side may now be unreconcilable.

The fact that the MB is the largest component should both encourage other opposition groups and challenge them to provide a winning program that will attract public support. The MB must also be challenged itself to prove that it has a program beyond "Islam is the Solution" and that it will follow through on its stated commitment to encourage a true democratic process for Egypt.

In 1988, when the Chilean voters rose up and denied Augusto Pinochet another term in office, Chilean activist and writer Ariel Dorfman told me the deciding factor was the "unimaginable patience of the Chilean people." They took the violence of the Pinochet regime, but they abided their time until their moment came, Dorfman said. I am a big fan of patience, not a static, passive kind, but one that shows intelligence; one that avoids quick (and often violent) solutions, but instead works actively to create opportunities for real and lasting change. I believe the Egyptian people are positively patient. They have taken a step toward their own moment for change.

Friday, December 02, 2005

More on the Election

After a day of violence in which one activist was killed after police fired on voters, and police blocked voters from polling places where the Muslim Brothers had strong support, it appears that as many as 35 independent candidates moved on to a run-off election against NDP candidates. No Muslim Brotherhood candidates moved on to the run-off round.

The Freedom for Egyptian blog picks up on two important points about the election that are being ignored in most reports. One is the degree to which the Old Guard of the NDP, led by the security side of the government, is turning not just on reformers, but the New Guard of the party, led by Gamal Mubarak.

While the candidates supported by the Old Guard swept to its usual victory, aided by the full resources of the government and the government-controlled media in Egypt, all of Gamal Mubarak's candidates in the NDP. It even seems that the Muslim Brotherhood's gains came completely at the expense of the "reform" wing of the NDP, although reform has to be taken with caution in this sense.

"The fight is ongoing between the old guard, led by the Speaker of the Shura Council and former minister of information, Safwat Al-Sharif, and the new guard. Apparently, Al-Sharif alliance won the battle. The new guard led by Gamal Mubarak is seeking to form a new party to overcome their defeat," Freedom for Egyptians wrote.

The blog also noted that it's to the government's benefit to make the world believe the options in Egypt are limited to the NDP vs Muslim Brotherhood. The belief is it will silence calls for reform, particularly for America, if those reforms are seen as bringing undemocratic Islamists to power. But of course the reality is far more complicated. One is the MB's have the right to full and free access to the political system. The limitation on political liberty and political associations is one of the greatest abuses Amnesty has identified in Egypt. These rights flow to Islamists as well as others.

However, the more important point is that the opposition movement in Egypt is in fact a varied one. It includes women's groups, secularists, academics, lawyers, health professionals, middle class and technology leaders, socialists, communists, liberals, intellectuals, rural leaders and urban social groups. I've always contended that American support for the Egyptian opposition has to include non-violent Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brothers -- they are too powerful to ignore. But the opposite is also true: It makes no sense to think that they constitute the entirety of the groups advocating political freedom. Egyptian society is far too rich and diverse to allow that.