Egyptian draft anti-terror laws pose a threat to free expression

Monday, May 5, 2014
Photo: Al Jazeera
By José Gonzalez Newly introduced counter-terrorism legislation is threatening to further undermine the already tenuous protections for free expression and dissent in Egypt. The two draft anti-terror laws have drawn rapid international censure, compounding months of concern and criticism for the country’s increasingly authoritarian interim government. The first of these draft laws amends provisions of the existing penal code, while the other deals with procedural provisions for counterterrorism and international judicial cooperation. Together, these new pieces of legislation would broaden the country’s definition of “terrorist” and grant the police and other government agencies greater powers over anyone considered a “terror suspect.” Of particular concern are amendments to article 86, which threaten a maximum of 10 years imprisonment for knowingly joining a terrorist organization or supporting a terrorist organization through speech, text, flyers or recordings. Though those methods of communication are widely used by demonstrators peacefully exercising their right to speak out against the current government, there is also fear that “supporting a terrorist organization” could be interpreted to include media coverage. The prolonged detention of three Al Jazeera English journalists under charges of belonging to a terrorist organization for reporting on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood illustrates some of the potential dangers that such vaguely worded laws could pose to media in Egypt. The three detained journalists, Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, have been in jail for more than 120 days with the trial dragging on indefinitely. Should the new anti-terrorism laws go into effect it could lead to stronger punishments for them and serve to intimidate local and foreign journalists in Egypt. While terrorism prevention is a clear goal for law enforcement, Egypt’s existing definition of terrorism has already been criticized for being vague, a problem that would only be compounded with this proposed legislation. Civil society has expressed grave concern in recent years regarding Egypt’s anti-terror laws, which remain a holdover from the old Emergency Law of 1958, used to justify violations of the constitution and human rights by the government under the shroud of security concerns. By building on this old legislation, the new anti-terror laws combine greater penalties for terrorist activities with a looser definition of what these activities are, thereby increasing the threat to the already precarious right to free expression in Egypt. If these laws are passed, not only would the death penalty’s application be expanded, but the new definition of terrorism would now include activities aimed at:
“damaging national unity, natural resources, monuments, hindering the work of judicial bodies, regional and international bodies in Egypt, and diplomatic and consular missions [and] any behaviour or preparation with the purpose of damaging communications, or information systems, or financial and banking systems, or the national economy.”
That is an extensive list of actions, which could have extreme consequences. It is easy to foresee how a peaceful demonstration outside a government building, for example, could be interpreted to be included under this new definition of “terrorism.” Under the newly proposed laws, the penalties for other offences would also increase. Fines for insulting a public employee would increase from 200 Egyptian Pounds (EGP), to 10,000 EGP. Establishing, organizing, or heading a terrorist group, would be punishable by death. If passed, these laws would also grant police more leeway in pursuing these broadly defined terror suspects, with the power to hold them for 72 hours before detainees are required to be referred to a prosecutor (a substantial increase over the current 24 hours). Amnesty International has expressed concerns that this will subject detainees to torture, instances of which the organization has documented in Egypt in the past. Considering the number of detainees and “terrorist suspects” already being held without charge for months on end, an extension of the time allowed between arrest and referral to the judiciary would likely exacerbate this problem. Abdullah al-Shamy, a journalist for Al Jazeera Arabic, has been detained without charge since August 2013 and has been on a hunger strike for more than 100 days. Human rights groups expressed outrage at the mass sentencing of 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters on March 24, handed down in two court sessions lasting no more than a few hours. 683 more supporters of the banned organization were sentenced to death under similar circumstances on April 28. While the Muslim Brotherhood has been tied to violence within Egypt, particularly following the overthrow of former president Mohammed Morsi, the swiftness of the sentencing suggest the court proceedings were coloured more by intimidation and vengeance than justice. Though mass death sentences are subject to the mufti, one of the country’s highest officials on Islamic affairs and may yet be overturned, they still stand as a stark demonstration of the Egyptian judiciary’s commitment to harsh punishments for any group it perceives as a threat. All of these cases have been handled under the current legislation, which leaves us to wonder how much more severe the consequences may be if the proposed laws are passed. The government's position in tightening measures against terrorism is at least in part a response to the violence that has been troubling the streets of the country since Morsi was ousted in the July 2013 coup. Most recently, a car bomb in Cairo killed a senior police officer. Although the laws in Egypt have become increasingly restrictive, it seems the violence will continue to build leading up to the presidential elections on May 26-27. A thin lining of hope emerged recently when interim President Adly Mansour asked the Justice Ministry to review the bills, and possibly add recommendations from social and political groups. However, given that the last major opposition party (the Muslim Brotherhood) was declared a terrorist organization upon its ouster, the chances of open dialogue are slim. Instead, the government’s restrictive posture on free expression appears likely to be upheld, at the expense of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders in Egypt. ________________________________________ José Gonzalez is a freelance journalist currently working in Toronto, Ontario.

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