Beirut — Egypt should revise draft counterterrorism legislation to protect the right to life and other rights and freedoms guaranteed by its constitution and by international law.
Interim President Adly Mansour, on April 14, 2014, sent draft amendments to Egypt's laws on terrorism back to the Justice Ministry for revision. Those amendments were exceedingly vague and overly broad, and would give security services sweeping powers to detain and spy on citizens and residents.
"Terrorist attacks are clearly a serious security threat in today's Egypt, but trampling on fundamental rights won't make the country safer," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Respect for human rights needs to be at the heart of the battle against terrorism."
At least 496 people, including 57 civilians, died in attacks by armed groups between July 2013, when the military deposed former President Mohamed Morsy, and March 2014, according to government figures.
The draft amendments to 17 articles of the penal code define terrorism to include actions - potentially such as labor strikes or peaceful protests - that could "obstruct" the work of public officials, or universities, mosques, embassies, or international institutions.
Article 86 of the penal code, as amended, would criminalize any "intimidation" that could "harm national unity," prevent the application of the country's constitution or laws, or "damage the economy."
"By these definitions, anyone who participated in the popular uprisings of 2011 or 2013 could be branded a terrorist," Stork said. "Peaceful protest should not be criminalized as terrorism."
The draft amendments prescribe up to 10 years in prison for anyone convicted of aiding or belonging to a group that "harms national unity or social peace." Such overly broad definitions violate Egypt's international and constitutional commitments to free association and assembly and invite abuse, Human Rights Watch said.
The amended laws would further allow the death penalty to be imposed on anyone found to be a leader or administrator of a group found to be a terrorist organization. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all cases as an inherently cruel and inhumane punishment.
Immediately after a December 24, 2013 bombing that killed at least 16 people in the Nile Delta city of Al-Mansoura, the government formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, though the Sinai-based group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the attack.
Since that date the government has used the terrorist designation to suppress peaceful Muslim Brotherhood activities and impose harsh sanctions on its supporters, including people not accused of any violent crime.
Allowing for the use of the death penalty in this manner could make leading Muslim Brotherhood members, from former President Morsy to, potentially, the group's local office managers, subject to execution.
A related amendment to the criminal procedures code would also extend the period police can hold detainees without seeing a prosecutor to 72 hours, from the 24 hours stipulated in the constitution. The period could be extended for an additional week.
Article 86 bis of the penal code, as amended, would maintain a provision that would make it a criminal offense to possess, even temporarily, or spread, even for informational purposes, any publication or recording that appears to advocate anything that falls under the laws' broad definition of terrorism.
Violations would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. This could be the basis for arresting and prosecuting anyone who has visited or linked to a web page containing material that authorities claim could "damage the economy" or "harm national unity."
Pages accessed on the Internet remain cached on a user's computer in a form that could easily be used to redistribute them. Anyone with a computer connected to the Internet, or a smart phone, has the "means of printing, recording, or publicity," prohibited under the provision. Such provisions violate the rights to receive and impart information, and could particularly affect the ability of journalists, academics, and researchers to do their work, Human Rights Watch said.
"Simply visiting a web page, or sharing a link on social media, should not be a criminal offense," Stork said. "These restrictions could potentially subject hundreds of thousands of Internet users to prosecution under counterterrorism legislation."
The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, in his 2009 report on Egypt, stated: "The definitions of terrorist crimes should be confined exclusively to activities that entail or are directly related to the use of deadly or serious violence against civilians...
The proscription of terrorist organizations, including the application of criminal responsibility of its members, must be made on the basis of factual evidence of activities that are of a genuine terrorist nature as well as of the actual involvement of the individuals concerned."
The UN General Assembly in 2006 emphasized respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as part of a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, and recognized that "development, peace and security, and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing."
As part of that process, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in 2009 released "Model Legislative Provisions Against Terrorism," based on contributions from agencies across the UN system. These recommendations can serve as a guide to Egyptian jurists as they consider new terrorism legislation.
"Egypt's responsibilities to safeguard its citizens and their rights are not in conflict," Stork said. "Egyptians deserve laws that will help preserve public safety and their basic freedoms. These proposed amendments would do neither."