New York — The Egyptian cabinet's announcement on March 24, 2011, of a new law banning strikes and demonstrations that impede the work of public institutions violates international law protections for free assembly and should be reversed immediately, Human Rights Watch said today.
The cabinet's claims that this law is an exceptional measure under the country's emergency law, which is still in effect, is a reminder of the need to revoke the emergency law immediately, Human Rights Watch said. An end to the state of emergency was one of the primary demands of the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square.
"This virtually blanket ban on strikes and demonstrations is a betrayal of the demands of Tahrir protesters for a free Egypt, and a slap in the face of the families whose loved ones died protesting for freedom," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Any genuine transition toward democracy must be based on respect for the basic rights of the people, including their right to demonstrate."
In the minutes of its third meeting, on March 24, published on its official website, the Egyptian cabinet announced the law, which criminalizes and imposes financial penalties for strikes and demonstrations, and said that it had sent the law to the Supreme Military Council for ratification. The new law provides for punishment "with imprisonment or a fine of not less than 50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$8,400), and not more than 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($16,806) for all those who during the state of emergency call for demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, or gatherings, or participate in any of the above, leading to the impediment or the obstruction of any of the state institutions or public authorities from performing their role."
The law also penalizes incitement, calls, writings, or any other public advertisements for a protest or strike with imprisonment, and a fine of not less than 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,040) and not more than 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($8,400). It provides for imprisonment of not less than one year for the use of violence during a protest or strike, or if the protest or strike results in any destruction of property, "harm to national unity, societal peace or public order," or "harm to public funds, buildings or public or private property."
As drafted, the law's overbroad and vague provisions, including banning protests that generally "obstruct" state institutions, or "harm societal peace," do not meet the narrowly permitted grounds for limits on public assembly under international law, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law, terms such as "national security" and "public safety" must refer to situations involving an immediate and violent threat to the nation. As party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights, Egypt is obliged to respect and ensure the right to freedom of assembly along with the right to strike.
The law's attempt to criminalize speech calling for demonstrations is an unlawful restriction on the internationally protected right to free expression, Human Rights Watch said.
The provisions to criminalize demonstrations that harm public order or public funds are of particular concern because of the sweeping arrests over the past few weeks of protesters accused of disrupting public order and destroying property, Human Rights Watch said. On February 25, March 6 and March 9, army and military police officers arrested peaceful demonstrators, detained them, in some cases tortured them, and brought them to trial before military courts that do not meet minimal due process standards.
The military apologized for the excessive use of force against protesters on February 25, but has not issued an apology for the abuses against demonstrators on other occasions, nor has it investigated the cases of torture associated with these arrests. At least 100 protesters remain detained after sentences by military tribunals under the new transitional government. The military has justified these practices based on its stated need to crack down on "thugs" who are disrupting public order.
In the published minutes of the March 24 cabinet meeting, the cabinet justified passing the law by saying that it was responding to a number of requests received "though legal channels."
The minutes also say that the government was studying how best to "address demands with regards to wages and labor conditions," referring to the ongoing strikes in various sectors of the economy over the past weeks. It went on to say that it "understood all of the demands by different sectors of society," but that "the country was currently undergoing a critical period that required protecting its economy and security from manipulation in order to overcome the current crisis and to respond to the legitimate demands of different sectors of society."
"Concerns about the economy or the security situation are no justification for repressive laws and no substitute for responsible policing and sound economic policies," Whitson said. "Economic difficulties are no excuse for limiting people's rights."
Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1981, which has allowed for the indefinite detention of thousands of people without charge or trial. In May 2010, then-President Hosni Mubarak renewed the state of emergency for another two years, despite having promised to end it in 2005.
Egyptian and international human rights organizations have urged the previous government for years to repeal the emergency law. The declared state of emergency in Egypt does not meet the extremely exceptional circumstances required under international law for such laws. They are allowed only at a "time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation" as set out in Article 4 of the ICCPR.
In a report on his 2009 visit to Egypt, Martin Scheinin, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, said that the emergency law that has been "almost continuously in force for more than 50 years in Egypt is not a state of exceptionality; it has become the norm, which must never be the purpose of a state of emergency."
If the Egyptian cabinet and the Supreme Military Council wish to signal that they intend to respect the human rights of the Egyptian people, Human Rights Watch said, they should:
Reverse the decision banning strikes and demonstrations;
Issue a public statement reaffirming respect for the right to demonstrate and to strike peacefully; and
Immediately end the state of emergency, revoke the Emergency Law, and release all those detained under that law.
"The provisions of this law criminalizing demonstrations that disrupt public works or harm societal peace are as overly broad and open to abuse as the restrictions in place under the Mubarak government," Whitson said. "It's quite shocking, really, that a transitional government meant to replace a government ousted for its failure to respect free speech and assembly is now itself putting new restrictions on free speech and assembly."