Friday, June 23, 2006

Blogger freed

Egyptian police today told arrested blogger Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam June 20 that he would be released. The process was expected to take at least a day, but by now he should be home with his wife. It's not clear whether charges remain hanging over him, but at least he is out of danger for now. He was arrested May 7, 2006, while taking part in a peaceful protest in support of two judges threatened with removal from the bench for exposing electoral fraud and also to call for the release of protesters detained in earlier demonstrations. To read his blog, click here.

This is great news, and thanks to everyone who came to his help. Concern remains that the government will continue to focus its harassing eye on the free speech efforts of the Internet community. As more Egyptians are turning to the Internet to build a civil community independent of government control and to share information about democracy and human rights, the government has stepped up harassment of blogging activists. In the past year, several bloggers have been arrested for activities that appear to be related to their free speech activities on the web. A half-dozen bloggers were detained during non-violent street protests this May and June in Egypt.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Egypt and the death penalty

Brothers Ezzat and Hamdi Ali Hanafi were executed by hanging at 6am local time on 18 June, at the Arab Tower (Borj al-'Arab) Prison in Alexandria, northwest of Cairo.

The two men had been sentenced to death on 25 September 2005 after an unfair trial before the (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court (ESSSC). ESSSCs are exceptional courts created under the state emergency, which has been in force since 1981. Trials before these courts violate basic principles for a fair trial, including the right to appeal before a higher tribunal. Those tried before these courts can only lodge a petition to President Mubarak or his nominee to quash or reduce their sentence. Had Ezzat and Hamdi Ali Hanafi been tried before an ordinary criminal court, both of them would have had the chance to appeal to the Court of Cassation on grounds of procedural irregularity. On a number of occasions the Court of Cassation has ordered retrials for people sentenced to death by criminal courts of first instance. They had been arrested in March 2004 and convicted of using an area of land belonging to the state to grow unspecified ''drugs''; when the security forces raided the property, they allegedly offered armed resistance, and took hostages to use as human shields.

It's hard to talk in America about the death penalty in Egypt. Amnesty International considers the death penalty a human rights violation and opposes it in all circumstances, but some argue that there are better places for AI to focus it's attention. I've had Arabs and Muslims simply laugh at me when we discuss the death penalty. My own state of North Carolina is likely to execute more people than the nation of Egypt will this year. Last year, Egypt went the entire calendar year without an execution, while the United States executed dozens. The U.S. State Department of course doesn't even include mention of the death penalty in its annual human rights report, as it doesn't recognize the death penalty as a human rights violation. In short, one reasonable opinion to take away from all of this is to underscore just simply out of whack the United States is in the number of executions it carries out compared to the rest of the world.

So why bother?

Let me try just one argument out here. The argument is that the death penalty is so closely intertwined with other human rights abuses, that it is impossible to work on human rights and not discuss capital punishment. Let's take torture. It is impossible to oppose the infliction of pain by Egyptian security forces without also addressing the ultimate infliction of pain by the government. It is also impossible to oppose a system that allows information extracted from torture to be used in criminal cases without also opposing the executions that come from those trials. Let's take unfair trials. It is impossible to oppose trials that fail to meet international standards, that limit defendants' right of appeal, that limit access to information for their defense attorneys, that prevent defendants and their attorneys from conducting an adequate defense, it is impossible to oppose all this and not oppose the executions that sometimes come from these trials.

Opposition to the death penalty frequently is confused with defense of the criminals. These Egyptian brothers appear to be serious criminals, although that judgment must be tempered by Amnesty's concerns about the fairness of their trial. All governments have the right, in fact they have the obligation, to prosecute criminals of these sort. But as the experience of many abolitionist countries show, that obligation does not require the death penalty. The existence of the death penalty in these countries -- covered as it is in secrecy, torture, twistings of the judicial system and assault on the powerless -- arises out of human rights abuses, rather than from any central tenet of the judicial system. The Egyptian and American experiences show that if there were no human rights abuses in the system, the system would produce no executions.

For more read about the death penalty in Egypt, click here.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Torture is Systemmatic in Egypt

Comes today not one but two allegations of torture and mistreatment out of Egypt. One comes from Mohamed Sharkawy, A KIFAYA activist who is in jail for allegedly insulting President Mubarak. Sharkawy suffers from broken ribs and other health problems but is denied proper medical attention.

The other claim comes from a former AI prisoner of conscience, who previously was convicted for "habitual debauchery" and jailed because, Amnesty believes, of his sexual orientation. One of Zaki's friends told Amnesty, "He is in the process of trying to get a student visa to attend Concordia University in Montreal, where he has been accepted in September. Yesterday he had to go to the police headquarters in Cairo for a police statement to get a Quebec Certificate. While there, he was detained several hours and tortured, and the police certificate they gave him said he was convicted of prostitution rather than 'habitual debauchery'. Because prostitution is a crime in Canada as well as in Egypt, this could stand in the way of his getting a visa in time to start Concordia." UPDATE: The friend who passed on that information now is informed that Zaki was not tortured while at the police station, but the experience of being kept for hours during the visa process resurrected his feelings of the past experiences in jail. My apologies for passing on this bad information, although we continue to be following the case to ensure that his efforts to obtain a visa are not improperly hindered.

A lot of attention has always been paid to the brutal manners of the security forces, their use of beating of opponents and demonstrators, and their use of torture to extract confessions from political prisoners. But these story is very common. When torture is systemmatic, it's everyone who is at risk. The actress who is stopped in a traffic incident. The teenager brought in on charges of stealing a bicycle. And, as these stories suggests, a citizen simply attempting to get a form from a public official.

The nature of torture is that it knows no boundaries. Once you let it in, once it becomes systemmatic, it finds it's way to all places.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Take Action to Defend Human Rights Blogger

Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam, a twenty-four-year old Egyptian blogger, was detained in central Cairo on May 7, 2006 while taking part in a peaceful protest in support of two judges threatened with removal from the bench for exposing electoral fraud and also to call for the release of protesters detained in earlier demonstrations.

Click here to take action to defend Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam through Human Rights First, a group dedicated to helping human rights defenders.

More Egyptians are turning to the Internet to build a civil community independent of government control and to share information about democracy and human rights. And the government is taking notice. This isn't the first arrest of an Egyptian blogger. In November, authorities arrested blogger "Kareem Amer" for his writings about Islam. He was also fired from his university.

These two arrests raise the concerns that led Amnesty International UK to launch a new site called "" The purpose is to harness the international community to protect the Internet as a tool for human rights, to call attention to abuses of the Internet by governments and to tell the stories of human rights defenders working online. One section is dedicated to online comments that governments have attempted to censor. I've added a feed of these comments in the right-hand column of this blog.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Is there hope for the liberal opposition?

The always valuable newsletter of Saad Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies has a report from Tim Eaton this month discussing the fights within political opposition parties. It's a sad but not uncommon story.

The general outline of the story is an autocratic government's strategy of divide and conquer.
Permanent oppression at first can create a sense of unity in opposition groups, but after decades of this, the fault lines start showing both between opposition groups and within them. New generation of leaders arrive challenging old leaders' ways. (Incidentially, if anyone is interested in a fascinating look at how the Civil Rights movement started fragmenting after the success of the Voting Rights Act in 65, check out Taylor Branch's latest book on America in the King Years.)

The same thing has happened in Egypt. Eaton's reports of the violent effort by Noman Gomaa to retake power of the Wafd party. For more click here. At the same time, the once promising al-Ghad party is breaking up into impotence with intraparty disputes and with Ayman Nour in jail.

Of course the beneficiary is not just the NDP, but the Muslim Brotherhood, the one opposition group who has been able to maintain its cohesion despite years of oppression. Eaton dispares that there is no "third way" option between the NDP and the MB in the foreseeable future.

Eaton's comments are realistic, and it's been truly sad to see so often the Egyptian opposition turn its anomosity upon itself. Saad Ibrahim himself faced severe criticism even as he was languishing in jail.

There are times in which I am optimistic; when I think of the other oppositions in Chile, South Africa, Eastern Europe, which also faced division, but with patience waited for their moment and acted in a miraclous unity. The unity shown in the judges protest offers one glimpse that there might be another way. As those moments fade away into another temporary calm, we can still hope that those were the building blocks for something stronger, something later.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Letter from Ayman Nour: "Exert Every Effort to Defend My Fair Case"

Jailed democracy activist Ayman Nour is continuing his work from behind bars. Here is a letter he has sent to the world community:

I address this very short letter to you and to all the honorable and free people in the world, to all the representatives of the free people and those whose consciences refuse oppression, injustice, false accusations and merciless murder.

My letter is very short due to the circumstances out of my control restricting my freedom and depriving me of my human rights, the foremost of which is the right to write, express and reject the injustice and suffering I am subjected to!!

The day my freedom was taken away in January 2005, your great efforts –after God and combined with the efforts of my supporters- played a crucial role in my release. The first faces I saw –an honor to me- were the faces of a delegation of European male and female parliament representatives. Your visit to me during my imprisonment is not only reason for breaking the doors of this prison and my temporary release, it also gave me the possibility of exercising my right in running for the first presidential election. I was imprisoned to prevent me from running for the election in January 2005. With God's grace and the enthusiasm of the reformists I was able to come in second to the president and be the only competitor to him and his son despite the rigging and all forms of injustice, defamation and changing the results. I also paid an extra price when my constituency's election results were rigged thus causing me to lose my permanent seat in the parliament due to blatant rigging. Some of you were in Cairo and witnessed a part of the tragedy.

Today I pay a new and high price as punishment for having run for the presidential election. I am also being prevented from continuing the democratic reform path in Egypt so that the current regime can strengthen its presence by claiming there is no alternative for it other than fundamentalism and terrorism, thus forcing people inside and outside Egypt to accept its presence.

Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, I do not pay this price alone. My children, family, party, my whole generation and all the reformists in this country pay the price, too. I lost my freedom, my work as a lawyer, journalist and chairman of the first and only civil political party to be established in a quarter of a century, the duration of Mubarak's rule. I am threatened of remaining in prison for five years and prevented from exercising my political rights for another five years to guarantee that Egypt is inherited by Mubarak's son, as well as making me an example to anyone who thinks of breaking the power monopoly not only in Egypt but in the Arab world!!

I call upon you to exert every effort to defend my fair case not for my sake, nor for the sake of my children or my party that is being destroyed, my human rights which are violated in this prison every morning, or my life which illness, injustice and oppression are eating away at. I ask you to defend my fair case to keep hope alive for the coming generations which we do not want to lose hope. It is for these generations that I call upon you to exert every effort to defend my fair case and to visit me in prison to witness the truth which the Egyptian regime is very good at concealing and telling lies to prove the opposite. Free people of the world. I am dying alone for a principle, for my country and for freedom. Please raise my voice before my spirit departs this world.

Ayman Nour

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Emperor Strikes Back

The Egyptian government took action today against one of the most critical elements of the U.S. democracy initiative. According to the BBC, the government shut down Egyptian operations by the International Republican Institute in Egypt until the group got permission. An Egyptian spokesman accused the local head of the institute, Gina London, of interfering in Egypt's internal affairs.

The same day, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected an effort to cut aid to Egypt. Opponents cited, among other things, the growing human rights crisis in Egypt.

The combination of these two events means that the official U.S. government effort to promote democracy in Egypt, already fairly mortibund, is dead. The half-hearted U.S. government effort, promoted by many well intended diplomats and activists but always undercut by a lack of true U.S. government leverage and its "war on terror," never really had much of a chance. Intellectually, the government has never been able to achieve any kind of credibility in its democracy promotion efforts because of our own record of human rights abuses in the war on terror. Politically, we were always reluctant to force a true showdown on human rights and democracy because of the Egyptian's "moderate" role in relations with Israel and against Islamist extremists.

Despite it's miserable results, I am particularly sad about the crackdown on the IRI. If I were to have one wish, it is that the government concentrated its efforts on providing support to the activists within the country -- which is the IRI's mission. I can't vouch for all of its programs, but its role in providing training and support and to a small degree, funds for Egyptian activists, we were doing the right thing.

When the Egyptian government accuses the IRI of meddling in internal affairs, well, that is what human rights activists do. We meddle. We interfer. But we should always do so on behalf of activists in the country. They are the ones who will make a difference. On the crime of interfering on their behalf, if we are doing the right thing, we should be guilty as charged.