Egyptian Lawyers Under Threat
By Carolyn Greco
Twenty four defendants charged with violating Egypt’s controversial protest law may hear a verdict on October 26, according to a ruling today in a Cairo court. Prominent human rights lawyer Yara Sallam is among the defendants. Both the restrictive protest law—often used by authorities to imprison human rights defenders—and the judicial authorities’ handling of the case have drawn international criticism.
It appears that the government is targeting Sallam and other activists to prevent them from carrying out peaceful human rights activities. On the night of her arrest, Sallam was repeatedly questioned about the nature of her work at The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the organization’s management.
Meanwhile, as violations against detainees continue, lawyers also experience mistreatment, according to a recent investigation conducted by EIPR. EIPR published testimonies from lawyers who were subjected to violence, including physical assault, verbal abuse, and threats and intimidation from law enforcement agents. They say they were denied the opportunity to meet with clients and hindered from obtaining official documents relating to their case. Some have endured brief detention or referrals to criminal investigations for advocating their clients’ rights.
Lawyers are indispensable to international human rights because they can document abuses and monitor the enforcement of domestic tribunals. Equipped with specialized training, lawyers have a unique license to appear in court to protect and promote rights. This license also comes with a series of professional duties and responsibilities. Codes of conduct worldwide establish that lawyers must act in the best interests of the client, maintain confidentiality, be independent, represent clients with diligence, and not take a case if they lack the competence, time, or resources to handle it adequately.
The EIPR report includes the testimony of lawyer Yasmine Hossam and another colleague who were reportedly assaulted by police personnel at the gates of the Police Academy in the Tora Prison Complex.
“They were attempting to enter a make-shift courtroom set up in the academy to attend the first substantial hearing in the trial of colleague Yara Sallam –EIPR’s transitional justice officer – and 23 others on charges of taking part in an unauthorized protest march,” says the report.
“According to Ms. Hossam, security agents at the gate including a police officer and lower-ranking personnel verbally abused and physically assaulted her and her colleague. She told EIPR she was punched and dragged by the hair and arms, and that the officer on the scene verbally abused her and touched her inappropriately amid her shouts for him to take his hands off of her. The commotion finally led the intervention of more officers. Subsequently, officials at the Tora Prison Complex and other agents from the Ministry of Interior pressured the culprit to apologize but categorically refused to file a police report. Yasmine Hossam lodged a complaint with the public prosecution on the 14th of September.”
Targeting lawyers for fulfilling their professional obligations violates well-established norms of freedom of expression and due process of law. It is particularly disturbing when lawyers are defending human rights activists in politically charged cases. States must actively protect the right of all lawyers to practice their profession with full freedom and independence.
Earlier this week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo, and said he discussed with the Egyptian Foreign Minister “the essential role of a vibrant civil society, a free press, due process under law…. And Egypt has long been a country with a strong civil society.”
But maybe not for much longer. The attacks on lawyers are just part of a wider crackdown on civil society and dissent. The U.S. government should stop praising Egypt and start telling the truth about its deepening repression.
Update: On October 26th, a Cairo court convicted the 23 defendants and sentenced each to three years in prison, a EGP 10,000 fine (aprox. $1,400), and three years of police surveillance following completion of their sentences. The verdict can be appealed.