ARTICLE 19 condemns the convictions and harsh sentences of 152 peaceful protesters in Egypt of 14 May 2016. The sentences ranged between two to five years in prison with hard labour, and fines of 100,000 Egyptian Pounds (£7,843).
Among those convicted and sentenced was human rights defender Mohamed Nagi, Director of the Students’ Rights and Freedoms Programme at the Association for Free Thought and Expression (AFTE), a longstanding partner of ARTICLE 19 in Egypt. Nagi was tried, convicted and sentenced in proceedings over two days for broad public order offences under Egypt’s Protest Law.
ARTICLE 19 calls for the convictions against Mohamed Nagi and other peaceful protesters to be overturned, and for all those sentenced to imprisonment to be immediately released. ARTICLE 19 repeats its previous call for Egypt to repeal the Protest Law, and replace it with legislation that respects international human rights standards.
“We are shocked at the harsh sentences handed down to peaceful protesters and those merely walking in the vicinity of protests,” said Saloua Ghazouni, Director of ARTICLE 19’s MENA Programme. “Since the introduction of the Protest Law in 2013, all critical public demonstrations have been effectively banned in Egypt. The time has come for Egypt to repeal this law and protect the right to peaceful assembly.”
Mohamed Nagi was one of many individuals arrested on accusations of participating in protests on 25 April 2016, which were planned in response to Egypt’s decision to cede control of two Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia. The cessation decision has been widely criticised for being unconstitutional, lacking transparency and public participation. Hundreds of other individuals were arrested in the run-up to the protests. The convictions and sentences are a clear attempt to suppress legitimate political dissent, and are a flagrant violation of Egypt’s obligations and commitments under international human rights standards.
Nagi and many of the arrested peaceful protesters were interrogated by security services in Agouza police station and rapidly referred to trial. The first session was held on 30 April, and was then adjourned to recommence and rapidly conclude on 14 May. Sentences were issued immediately following the closing of arguments for the defence, without any substantial time for deliberation by judges in either courtroom. The speed of the proceedings and absence of proper due process indicate that they were politically motivated and intended to send a swift and chilling message to others who might consider criticising or protesting against the government.
Nagi was convicted under Article 7 of Egypt’s Protest law, introduced by Presidential Decree in November 2013. The provision broadly criminalises a range of conduct in ambiguous terms, including “disrupting public security”, “hampering or harming citizens’ interests”, or “obstructing road traffic”. The higher sentences handed down against Nagi and the 151 peaceful protesters are the maximum permitted (set out in Article 19 of the Protest Law). International human rights law is clear that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly continues to apply even where there is temporary and even significant disruption to everyday life. It is clear that the series of protests on 25 April posed no particular risk to public order such that their dispersal, yet alone the subsequent arrests and convictions of participants, would be justified under international law.
Beyond the application of the Protest Law in this case, ARTICLE 19 has broader concerns with the law that highlight the necessity of its repeal and replacement with legislation that conforms to international human rights law. The law severely restricts the right to peaceful assembly and provides broad and sweeping powers to the police to prohibit meetings or demonstrations and to disperse them using lethal force. Technically, Egypt’s Protest Law only requires organisers of protests with more than 10 participants to notify the authorities of a planned assembly, and doesn’t require authorisation. In practice, however, broad powers to ban demonstrations mean that the freedom to protest is effectively at the discretion of the state, and therefore protests only occur with de facto authorisation. International human rights law is clear that States have a positive obligation to facilitate spontaneous assemblies that are peaceful, even where notification is not given against requirements of national law. Dispersal of assemblies and arrests of participants cannot be justified on the sole basis that they were not notified.
As Director of the Students’ Rights and Freedoms Programme at AFTE, Nagi has carried out important human rights research and advocacy, including to enable students imprisoned for their activism to sit for their exams while in prison. Nagi will now face as similar fate to those he advocated for, as he awaits permission to sit for his own diploma exam in prison.
ARTICLE 19 calls for Nagi, and all those convicted and sentenced for their legitimate expression in a peaceful protest, to be immediately released and for their convictions to be overturned and expunged from their records. The Egyptian government should repeal the Protest Law of 2013, replace it with legislation that fully complies with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law to protect the right to protest.