Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Phony Reform?

A lot of people this month are reading articles 41, 42, 43 and 45 of the Egyptian Constitution. They are articles governing key aspects of the Egyptian political process. Activists have long hoped that the constitution could be rewritten to encourage more political openness. Now the Egyptian government and President Mubarak have moved forward in doing just that, proposing changes to 34 constitutional articles, including those mentioned above. But he has a different idea of reform than that of democratic activists.

Click here for a look at the politics from Al-Ahram Weekly.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Karim Amer sentenced to Four Years

Blogger Karim Amer today was sentenced to four years in jail for "disparaging remarks about Egyptian President Mubarak," according to Egyptian activists. This very troubling result will bring about a further chilling climate for free speech and democratic activism, both online and in other public venues. Amnesty International has declared Karim to be a prisoner of conscience. In today's statement, Amnesty condemns the conviction.

"This sentence is yet another slap in the face of freedom of expression in Egypt," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Programme Director. "The Egyptian authorities must protect the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, even if the views expressed might be perceived by some as offensive. Amnesty International considers Karim Amer to be a prisoner of conscience who is being prosecuted on account of the peaceful expression of his views."

"It is a gloomy day for all the advocators of freedom of expression not only in Egypt but also in the whole world," Gamal Eid, HRinfo Executive director said. "When a young man is punished for having secular views in a country claiming respect to citizens' right to freedom of expression, it is a catastrophe. The democratic countries all over the world have already expelled such charges from their laws".

For a fuller update on the case, click here.

All activists are urged to take action. Once again the key places to protest are with the Egyptian ambassador.

Ambassador Nabil Fahmy
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
3521 International Court N.W.
, Washington, D.C., 20008


The embassy e-mail is

Habib Ibrahim El Adly
Minister of the Interior
25 Al-Sheikh Rihan Street
Bab al-Louk


Counsellor Mamdouh Mohyiddin Marie
Minister of Justice
Ministry of Justice
Midan Lazoghly

You can also support Karim by adding comments to his website, or by adding comments to the Free Kareem website here.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Keeping Up the Pressure on Blogger's Case

Amnesty today released a web feature on Karim Amer, the blogger facing a 10-year sentence for his blogging activities. Here's a link to the feature and a link to a previous statement on the case. And here is a link to Karim's own blog (in Arabic).

Charges against Karim Amer include "spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country's reputation", "incitement to hate Islam" and "defaming the President of the Republic".

Amnesty states, "His trial is particularly worrying as the Egyptian blogsphere is expanding as an area of free expression and bloggers have increasingly been posting information about human rights abuses in Egypt, including allegations of torture and police violence against peaceful protesters. Their writings and postings of information on human rights violations, including graphic evidence of such abuses, have been relayed by international media and highlighted by national and international human rights organizations, putting pressure on the Egyptian authorities to open investigations into some of these allegations."

Amnesty has declared Karim to be a prisoner of conscience. If you want to take action on this case, in the U.S. you should write letters of support for Kareem to the Egyptian ambassador:

Ambassador Nabil Fahmy
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
3521 International Court N.W.
, Washington, D.C., 20008


You can also support Karim by adding comments to his website, or by adding comments to the Free Kareem website here.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Collective Punishment in Egypt

A new report from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights focuses attention on the problem of collective punishment in Egypt.

This report looks at the history of mass arrests by Egyptian officials to target ethnic, social, religious or other groups for crimes committed by a few. This of course violates international human rights standards, diminishes the fabric of civic society, entrenches human rights abuses within the judicial system and generally is ineffective in stopping crime. After the Taba bombings in 2004, EOHR reported that more than 4,000 people were arrested, almost all of whom ended up being released after being jailed in poor conditions, some for long periods of time.

Collective punishment also is often accompanied by violence by police officers, as they attempt to round up large number of people. EOHR that several recent episodes of collective punishment have resulted in deaths and large number of injuries to civilians.

Yesterday we wrote about how Egyptian officials detained family members of suspects. Collective punishment is the same unhealthy principle, writ large.

Here's a link to the EOHR report.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Retribution for Torture Complaint?

A prominent Egyptian blogger is reporting that Ihabd Magdi Farouk, a 19-year-old Egyptian who is reporting that he was tortured by Egyptian police, was sentenced to three months in jail for mobile phone theft. Activists fear that the conviction was part of the police's efforts to force him to retract his allegation of torture. The police officers have been arrested and face a March 3 court date.

One thing that's interesting and different about this case is when police went looking for Farouk after he made the torture allegation, they detained family members in order to convince himself to turn himself in. This egregious behavior is not unheard of in Egypt, (see "Women Targeted by Association") but it violates all kinds of legal standards.

Here's a previous posting I made on this case.

Here's what the Egyptian blogger, 3arabawy, is writing about the update.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rendition Case Released

An Egyptian who is at the heart of a CIA controversy in Italy was released by Egyptian officials after nearly three years in Egyptian detention. The BBC is reporting that Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr ("Abu Omar") was now with his family. Click here for the BBC story. The Washington Post story adds that Abu Omar is considering a lawsuit against those involved in his kidnapping.

In mid-2004, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was abducted on a street in Milan and allegedly driven to the US air base in Aviano, Italy, interrogated, drugged and taken to the US military base in Ramstein in Germany. From there he was flown to Egypt, where he was allegedly tortured, including with electric shocks. A year later, an Italian judge ordered 25 CIA officials to be indicted for involvement in the illegal rendition; however none have been arrested and are ever expected to be so.

The BBC story says Abu Omar continues to allege he was tortured while in detention. He was said to have been charged with membership in an illegal organization, but he never was convicted of anything while in detention.

Now that Abu Omar has been released, it's time to ask what did the United States gain from his rendition and torture? The world isn't any safer, but it is different. Reportedly, the rendition interrupted an ongoing Italian investigation into Abu Omar, which could have brought appropriate criminal charges against the cleric. But these days, waiting for legitimate judicial processes to do its work seems, well, quaint.

Later this month, the U.S. State Department will release its annual human rights report, which likely will criticize Egypt for its record of systematic torture. The HR report used to be something Egyptian activists looked forward to and something that brought angry condemnations from Egyptian officials. This year, reading the section on torture can only bring sadness to activists and laughter from the government officials; both will know the depths of U.S. complicity in the very abuses it criticizes.

It's hard to figure out whether to focus on moral concerns about rendition or the straight-forward political nuts-and-bolts aspects of the policy. On either end, the policy is a loser.

Click here to see a "Denounce Torture" Amnesty action on this case.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Crackdown on MB Deepens

Arrests of Muslim Brothers is a recurring story in Egypt, but the number and intensity of the current crackdown seems to indicate something different about this one. The organization announced Friday that 81 members were detained this week.

Among the detainees is Doctor Gamal Abdul Salam (Secretary-General of relief committee in Arab Doctors' Union and an ex-Muslim Brotherhood candidate in 2005 People's Assembly elections for Qasr Al-Neel constituency). The detainees were ordered held for 15 days pending investigation on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood group and inciting the public opinion against the regime, according to the MB's website.

The arrests brings the total of MB arrests in recent months to 300.

As with all crackdown on the banned organization, the question always is why now? On some past occasions, the arrests have been a straightforward effort to prevent MB members from running for office. And that could be the case now. In April, Egyptians go to the polls to elect members to the shura council. The process will also effect proposed constitutional changes that are important to the Mubarak government.

One last thing: I want the underscore the charge of "inciting public opinion against the government." A lot of people don't like the Muslim Brothers. Their politics scare a lot of American policymakers. But when when people get arrested for things like "inciting public opinion against the government," that's when you need to put away political considerations and do the needed human rights and democracy activism.

For more on the story from the Muslim Brothers website, click here.

Here's the BBC's report on the arrests.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Reports of Labor Strife

Al-Ahram newspaper reports a number of strikes in recent weeks in Egypt, perhaps a sign of more vigorous opposition by the labor movement. The headlines calls the sweep of strikes "unprecedented," which is probably overstating it, but certainly the government has taken measure to ensure the stifling of the growth of an independent labor movement.

The strikes included 4,200 workers at factories at Misr Shebin Al-Kom Spinning and Weaving Company in the Delta region comes following the sale of the company to a private Indian firm. One thing that is interesting about the case is that the workers are striking to force the government and company to fulfill promises about bonuses. The workers aren’t protesting the sale to the private investor. In fact, the newspaper quotes one worker as saying, “We welcome the new owner, but we must receive our financial rights.”

Click here for the al-Ahram’s report.

The pace of privatization of companies in Egypt has been pretty slow by most standards, but still fast enough to case dislocation. For a government so keen on "stability" as the Mubarak government, it has faced down much of the pressures to modernize a pretty old and slow economy. But the real problem here is that the workers themselves have been frozen out, muzzled just like other aspects of civil society. As the pressure to modernize the Egyptian government gets stronger, the easiest and least disruptive way of doing this would be to ensure labor involvement. But that would mean loosening control over Egyptian civil society. The government is doing its best to ignore the dynamics of this balance -- a more vigorous labor movement would certainly be one key event to force them to confront it.

Here's an interesting post on labor struggles in Egyptian history, including the theory that the first recorded strike occurred in 1500 BC in Egypt.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

More News on Ayman Nour

The news doesn't get better about Ayman Nour, jailed former presidential candidate. I talked with family members today, and it appears a judicial decision has come down denying his request for release on health concerns. The decision seems to ensure that barring any presidential action, he will serve his full five years in jail.

His health condition is such that he may not be able to serve all of it. According to family members, his diabetes is out of control, he's not getting proper medication, his eye sight is failing and he has diabetic ulcers on his feet that may require amputation. His family is distraught at the latest turn.

The case is frustrating because it is one instance where the U.S. government has done all the right things, essentially, from presidential statements, to state department statements to congressional calls for action. Here's an old Washington Post clip that recalls this.

But none of this has been effective. It's a reminder of what a tricky thing leverage is -- despite all of the foreign aid the U.S. gives Egypt, it doesn't always translate into real leverage. The Mubarak government never feels compelled to do something that it doesn't see as being in its best interest. Leverage is something far trickier, and it may end up that the Egyptians think it's in our own interest to give them the aid, to keep them on our side.

And of course, it's a reminder that even if you do the right thing, if you're not keeping to a single standard, it may all come to naught. Unlike other kinds of leverage, human rights or other kind of ethical and moral persuasion requires a consistency in policy and action.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Police Officer Goes on Trial for Torture

A trial worth watching: an Egyptian police officer is going on trial for the torture and murder of the prisoner Mohammed Abdel Qader El Sayed.

The trial started last week -- Feb. 3, in Cairo Criminal Court. The defendant is State Security Investigation officer Captain Ashraf Mostafa Hussein Safwat.

As with many political Egyptian trials, the testimony lasted for only part of the day. The first day's testimony focused on evidence presented by the head forensic doctor, and then adjourned for three months to May 5, when the defense will present arguments.

For more on the case, click here.

This is an important trial because of the long history of impunity that has defined security officials and police's relationship with the use of torture. Amnesty International has noted a few cases such as this, in which officers were brought to trial, but generally these cases are marked by minor sentences that are not always carried out. The vast majority of torture allegations never receive any public investigation at all.

We can end torture. There isn't anything essential or inevitable about it. Amnesty has developed a 12-point program for the elimination of torture. Point 5 is independent investigation of torture allegations, and Point 8 is bringing torturers to justice. Egypt has traditionally done neither. Here's hoping this trial can provide momentum for changing that.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

No Welcome for Human Rights Activist

I'm a little late on writing on this, but it's worth mentioning as an example of what the Egyptian government thinks about human rights activists.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) and Arab Program for Human Rights Activists (APHRA) reports that Mohamed Al-Maskati, human rights activist and Director of Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), was prevented from entering Egypt Jan. 31. The Cairo Airport Security Service held Al-Maskati in custody for more than 12 hours at the airport before he was deported back to Bahrain.

Al-Maskati (20 years-old) arrived at Cairo airport to participate in the seminar titled "The Role of Youth in Supporting Freedoms and Democracy" which is to be hold by BYSHR and APHRA. For more details, click here.

One of the things that might have prompted the Egyptian action was that Al-Maskati recently participated in a peaceful rally before the Egyptian embassy in Bahrain in protest on the detention of Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer. But the government probably didn't need any "provocation." I wouldn't expect the Mubarak government to treat a Bahraini human rights activist any better than they treat an Egyptian. They've been harassing and detaining Egyptian activists for years.

I hope there is a time soon when Egyptian organizations can invite foreign activists from all over the world to come share their stories and not worry whether they will be allowed in without harassment.
Fortunately, Mohamed Al-Maskati is a young man, young enough that it might happen in his lifetime.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Going After the Press

It's bad enough with Egyptian authorities use the law to prevent freedom of the press, but it's worse when they violate their own laws to do so. That's the opinion of several human rights organizations who have criticized the Supreme Council of Press (SCP) , which is preventing publication of al-Badiel. For more, click here.

The SCP is shutting down the paper without adhering to the rules, which require them to announce their objections within a 40-day period. To date, the organization is refusing to publicly disclose the reason for their action, despite the requests and demands of the paper's editors.

Don't expect this case to be resolved anytime soon. Freedom of the Press in Egypt plays out to the whims of the government and of the allegedly independent organizations, such as the SCP, that it sets up to do its bidding. Whenever professional organizations, such as the lawyers and medical associations, show any independence, the government changes the rules and comes in to exert authority.

It's an old report -- 1996 -- but its concerns on muzzling civil society in Egypt are still valid. Click here to see the AI report. Just as I wrote yesterday torture seems to be at the core of a system of legal rights violations, I believe you will find that the crushing of the freedom of the press is at the core of any muzzling of civil society.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Why is Torture So Important?

Once again we are confronted with another serious allegation of torture in Egypt, one gaining the attention of human rights groups in Egypt. Here's a brief excerpt from a statement released Friday by a coalition of HR groups:

"As this statement is being written a number of policemen from Imbaba police station are present in Ihab Farouk's residence waiting for him to return. This development followed a night long interrogation of his father and wife, followed by taking his younger brother, Mohamed Magdi Farouk, hostage until this moment.

Less than 24 hours after the release of today's issue of the daily El Masry El Yom (Thursday, 1 February 2007) featuring the story of torture of citizen Ihabd Magdi Farouk, 19 years, at Imbaba police station, the police started looking for him at his residence. Not finding him there, they arrested his father and wife, took them to the same police station and interrogated them for 5 hours – from 2a.m. until 7 a.m. asking about the whereabouts of Ihab. Why do they want him? In order to settle some matters between him and some police sergeants, as claimed by the Imbaba police.

When Ihab did not show up the police arrested his younger brother, Mohamed Magdi Farouk, as hostage until the appearance of Ihab. At the same time a number of Imbaba police force remained at his residence waiting for his return."

I believe we always have to keep a focus on torture. I believe it is at the core of any system that abuses human rights. You can not improve a human rights situation without getting rid of torture; at the same time, ending torture brings significant improvements in a whole range of human rights abuses. Let me just count a few -- prolonged incommunicado or administrative detention, military and security courts, unfair trials in general, the death penalty, arrest of family members or friends of suspects and impunity for human rights abusers.

When you look at these abuses in Egypt in particular, you almost always find evidence of the presence of torture. The legal and political edifice created to facilitate torture and to protect torturers inevitably ends up being used in other violations.

When you hear debates, post-Abu Ghraib, about the necessity of the use of torture to fight "bad guys" or as Vice President Chaney allegedly said "to work the dark side a little bit," please remember that this is a path that always leads in places that we don't want to be.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

New Amnesty Statement on Blogger Karim Amer

Amnesty International today called for the immediate and unconditional release of Karim Amer, the first Egyptian blogger to be tried for writing blogs criticizing Egypt's al-Azhar religious authorities, President Husni Mubarak and Islam.

Karim Amer, a former al-Azhar University student and blogger, is facing up to 10 years in prison for his writings in a trial that resumes today. Charges against him include “spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country’s reputation”, “incitement to hate Islam” and “defaming the President of the Republic”.

"Karim Amer's trial appears intended as a warning by the authorities to other bloggers who dare criticize the government or use their blogs to spread information considered harmful to Egypt’s reputation," said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. "This is particularly worrying as bloggers have increasingly been posting information about human rights abuses in Egypt, including torture and police violence against peaceful protesters."

The trial opened on 18 January 2007 before Maharram Bek Court in Alexandria. Karim Amer was charged under Articles 102, 176 and 179 of Egypt’s Penal Code. Amnesty International has been urging the Egyptian authorities to review or abolish this and other legislation that, in violation of international standards, stipulates prison sentences for the mere exercise of the rights of freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion.

"Amnesty International considers Karim Amer to be a prisoner of conscience who is being prosecuted on account of the peaceful expression of his views about Islam and the al-Azhar religious authorities. We are calling for his immediate and unconditional release."


Karim Amer was first detained by the Egyptian authorities for 12 days in October 2005 because of his writings on his blog ( about Islam and the sectarian riots which took place in the same month in Alexandria's Maharram Bek district. These riots followed reports that the video of a play believed to be anti-Islam was being screened in a Coptic church in the district.

After he was charged and released, disciplinary measures were taken against him and he was dismissed from al-Azhar University in March 2006. The university's disciplinary board found him guilty of blaspheming Islam.

He was summoned to appear before the office of the Public Prosecutor in Maharram Bek district of the city of Alexandria on 7 November 2006 following a complaint made against him by al-Azhar University. The Public Prosecutor ordered his detention for four days on 7 November, which was later extended for a further 15 days, to allow further time for investigation. He has remained in detention since then following a series of extensions. While in detention, he was kept in solitary confinement and in incommunicado detention and was only allowed visits by his relatives last week.