Human Rights in Egypt: One Prisoner’s Release is Not Enough

During his recent visit to Egypt, Pope Francis met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and pointedly reminded him: “History does not forgive those who preach justice, but then practice injustice.” The Pope also called on him to ensure “unconditional respect for inalienable human rights.”

There are many victims of injustice in today’s Egypt, from the tens of thousands of political prisoners held without charge or trial (or after unfair trials) to the hundreds disappeared and tortured in secret prisons to the hundreds of unarmed protesters shot in the streets since Sisi seized power in July 2013.

There is also the unprecedented clampdown on the press, which has made Egypt one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom, and the equally destructive clampdown on independent civil society organizations, including a sustained, systematic attack on human rights organizations using criminal investigations, forced closure, death threats, travel bans, and asset seizures.

There is a cold, inexorable logic behind Sisi’s comprehensive assault on basic rights and freedoms. He seized power in a military coup and has exercised that power with three main priorities: 1) to protect and enhance the privileges of the military, 2) to silence and discredit the popular demands for more representative government, which came to the fore in the mass protests that brought down the government of President Mubarak in February 2011, and 3) to shield from accountability those responsible for severe human rights violations.

The day before the Pope’s meeting with Sisi, a court scheduled a hearing to consider the appeal of the conviction and sentence of Ahmed Douma. Few cases epitomize the injustice of the Sisi government’s approach more than that of Douma, 31, a leader of the April 6 Youth Movement that played a prominent role in the 2011 uprising. He’s serving a life-sentence after a travesty of a trial presided over by the notorious symbol of Egypt’s politicized judiciary, Judge Nagy Shehata. Judge Shehata has made no secret of his personal animus against the revolution and has made it his personal mission to punish revolutionary leaders who have the misfortune to come before his court.

Douma was one of over 250 defendants brought to trial in connection with the clashes outside the cabinet offices building in central Cairo in December 2011. Police tried to forcefully break up a protest against military rule. In the ensuing violence, at least seventeen protesters were killed and hundreds were injured. During the clashes, the historic national archives building, situated next to the cabinet offices, caught fire, destroying many priceless documents and other artifacts.

At the time of sentencing in February 2015, Douma was the only defendant in captivity. He received a life sentence, together with 229 other defendants sentenced in absentia, and a fine of over $1 million, having been convicted of assaulting members of the security forces and vandalism.

Douma’s defense team complained of many procedural irregularities in the trial, but their objections were ignored by Judge Shehata. Eventually, the defense team chose to boycott the trial to protest the obstruction of the court, which had denied them access to case files, prevented them from calling witnesses, and responded to requests from lawyers for missing case papers with criminal investigations against them. Douma was finally sentenced at a hearing without his lawyers present. Judge Shehata  expressed, in court and in the media, hostile views against Douma, while giving open support to the police and military forces involved in the clashes.

None of the police or military personnel involved in killing protesters and stripping women of their clothes were held accountable. Investigatory files into the security forces’ actions disappeared. No evidence linked Douma to the fire and, in fact, he and other protesters had tried to extinguish the flames. Judge Shehata refused to admit video evidence showing other people setting the fire.

Douma was sentenced in a brazenly politicized trial designed to punish him, deter others who might wish to emulate his opposition to authoritarian rule, discredit activists as vandals and violent troublemakers, and send a clear message that the rule of law will not protect nonviolent critics of Sisi  from the harshest of punishments.

President Trump has claimed credit that his warm relations with President Sisi facilitated the release from prison of the Egyptian-American social activist, Aya Hijazi. Hijazi, like thousands of other people in Egypt, was wrongly imprisoned and her release is very welcome, but Trump is mistaken if he thinks that securing her release is all he needs to do with respect to human rights in Egypt.

President Trump seems to prefer not to disturb his cozy relationships with the world’s dictators by objecting to their violations of human rights and disregard of universal values. However, by overlooking these values he is undermining the U.S. role as a global leader on human rights and harming vital American interests. As the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights remarked on May 1, the Egyptian government’s widespread violations of human rights are exacerbating the problem of terrorism it claims to be fighting and facilitating radicalization.

The Pope had the same message for Sisi, reminding him of the need to uphold human rights “even as it is assaulted on its own soil by senseless acts of violence.” To cultivate Egypt as a constructive partner in the global struggle against terrorism, President Trump should speak with the same clarity and moral courage as Pope Francis and the High Commissioner. He could start by calling for the release of Ahmed Douma and other wrongly imprisoned critics of authoritarian rule in Egypt, who may not have American citizenship, but who share a belief in the universal values that the United States should champion.


Published on May 2, 2017


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