GENEVA (28 October 2019) – UN human rights experts* have called on Egypt to protect people's rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, after a wave of arrests targeting protesters, journalists and human rights defenders.
The experts' comments follow the response by Egyptian security forces to a series of peaceful protests across the country on 20 and 21 September 2019, in which demonstrators called for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to resign and for an end to government corruption and austerity measures.
"We express our concerns at the heavy-handed response by Egyptian security forces against the protesters and others," said the experts.
The authorities have reportedly used live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators, and have reportedly arrested at least 3,000 people since the start of the protests. Those detained include people participating in the demonstrations, bystanders, journalists, academics, lawyers and prominent human rights defenders. The majority are facing charges and many have allegedly been denied legal representation.
"We recall that the primary duty of law enforcement authorities is to protect peaceful assemblies. Use of force is not permitted unless strictly necessary, and not to a greater extent than strictly necessary. The use of lethal force should be a measure of last resort," said the experts.
"Restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly must be in accordance with the law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportionate to achieve their protective function.
"The use of counter-terrorism legislation to target people expressing dissent and seeking to promote and protect human rights is never compatible with human rights law."
The experts said they were particularly alarmed by reports of physical and verbal abuse against three human rights defenders – Alaa Abdel Fattah, Mohamed El-Baqer and Esraa Abdel Fattah – who have been detained and charged.
"We are gravely concerned about allegations that torture may have occurred during the detention of these three human rights defenders," said the experts. "Those allegations must be thoroughly investigated by the authorities, and, if confirmed, those responsible must be held accountable."
They also expressed concern at allegations that El-Baqer, who heads the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, may have been targeted specifically in reprisal for the NGO's submissions to Egypt's forthcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR), when the country's human rights record will be assessed as part of the work of the Human Rights Council.
"We are concerned at the allegations that this human rights lawyer has suffered reprisals for his engagement with the UN," said the experts.
"These acts could deter other human rights defenders in Egypt from engaging with the UN, resulting in self-censorship.
"We call on the Government of Egypt to immediately cease its campaign of persecution against protesters, human rights defenders, journalists and anyone else with divergent opinions, and take all measures to guarantee a safe and enabling environment for all Egyptians, independent of their political opinions.
"The Egyptian authorities must investigate all alleged human rights violations, and remedy any abuse faced by individuals. We also call on the Government to find ways of engaging with the population about their legitimate grievances."
The UN experts have previously expressed their concerns to the Government of Egypt and are continuing to urge the authorities to engage in genuine dialogue with protesters, human rights defenders and other dissenting voices.
- UN experts: Mr. Michel Forst (France), Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mr. David Kaye (USA), Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mrs. Leigh Toomey, Vice-Chair, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Ms Agnes Callamard (France), **Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Ms Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (Ireland), Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; Mr. Clement Nyaletsossi Voule (Togo), Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association; and Mr. Nils Melzer (Switzerland), Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.*
The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.