During periods of upheaval, journalists, writers and dissidents are invariably on the front line. This has been the case in Egypt since General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013 and Adly Mansour, a judge who presides over the Supreme Constitutional Court, was appointed as interim president. Despite the new constitution, aimed at improving provisions for freedom of expression and the press, that came into effect on 18 January 2014, repression has worsened, with independent and critical voices being targeted by security services for their reporting or peaceful activism.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in September 2013 and declared a terrorist group on 25 December, peaceful protests have been violently suppressed by the police and thousands arrested for their alleged support of the organisation. Hundreds have also been detained under Mansour’s repressive protest law, issued on 24 November 2013, which banned demonstrations without written permission from the Ministry of Interior. PEN and other human rights groups are appalled at the escalating crackdown on dissent, which has seen several journalists arrested in recent months, some of whom have reportedly been tortured or otherwise ill-treated in detention.
Among those currently detained at the time of writing are Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste (an Australian national), Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy (a Canadian-Egyptian) and producer Baher Mohamed (Egyptian). They were arrested on 29 December 2013 after being accused of broadcasting news which harmed domestic security. Greste is now accused of collaborating with ‘terrorists’ by talking to Muslim Brotherhood members. Fahmy and Mohamed are accused of the more serious offence of membership of the Brotherhood. On 29 January 2014, they, along with 17 other journalists, were formally charged (some in absentia) with belonging to a terrorist organisation; calling for disruption of the law and preventing state institutions from conducting their affairs; broadcasting false news to support a terrorist group; and harming the national interest of the country.
Other silenced voices include Egyptian documentary director Hossam al-Din Salman al-Meneai, who was arrested without a warrant with American translator Jeremy Hodge on 22 January 2014 at their apartment in Cairo. Hodge was released four days later and returned to the USA. Meneai was released without bail on 9 February 2014 but could still face trial on charges of ‘spreading false news’ and ‘endangering the stability of the nation’. Hodge claims that he witnessed Meneai being beaten and that a police officer put a gun to his head and threatened to pull the trigger.
Equally worrying is the two-year prison sentence handed down to internationally acclaimed poet Omar Hazek, who has been detained since early December last year for taking part in a protest. His publications include a collection of poetry in Arabic and English entitled Nota – Skies of Freedom, co-published with Syrian poet Abdelwahhab Azzawi and two other poets from Italy and Portugal. In 2007, Hazek was awarded the title ‘Poet of Romance’ in a televised classical poetry competition, Prince of Poets, organised by the Abu Dhabi Organisation for Culture and Heritage.
Since the overthrow of President Mubarak, Hazek has been outspoken in his allegations of corruption in the Library of Alexandria. The head of the board of trustees was former first lady Suzanne Mubarak. Dr Ismail Serageldin, her close associate, remains its director, despite multiple calls for his resignation over alleged abuse of funds and power and an ongoing investigation into the misappropriation of state funds. During 2011, Hazek produced some 15 articles alleging corruption at the library, but in spite of a recommendation by the district attorney’s office that Serageldin should be prosecuted, no action has been taken and Serageldin remains in post.
On 4 December 2013, Hazek was arrested along with a number of other activists for ‘protesting without permission’ in front of the Alexandria Criminal Court in solidarity with the family of Khalid Said (beaten to death in police custody in 2010) during a retrial of his alleged killers. Hazek was initially charged with beating a policeman, destroying a police vehicle and carrying weapons, among other things, but these charges were subsequently dropped. PEN believes that Hazek has been imprisoned for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and assembly, and is unaware of any other information suggesting that he used or advocated violence.
In January, Hazek and three other activists were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and a 50,000 EGP fine (around £4,300) for violating the new protest law. On 16 February, the Alexandria Appeal Court upheld their sentences. The only remaining course of legal redress is to challenge the constitutionality of the protest law.
Readers might like to send appeals before the first round of presidential elections on 26–27 May, expressing concern at the recent crackdown on journalists, writers and activists in Egypt and calling for the immediate and unconditional release of poet and activist Omar Hazek; urging the authorities to uphold the right to legitimate expression and peaceful assembly in accordance with their obligations as laid out by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party; and seeking assurances that Article 7 of the Constitutional Declaration, which provides for limitations on freedom of expression through speech, writing, pictures or other means, is not used to impose restrictions exceeding those permitted under international law. Appeals to be sent to:
His Excellency, Ashraf El Kholy
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
26 South Street, London W1K 1DW
Fax: +44 20 7491 1542
Interim President, Adly Mansour
Supreme Constitutional Court
Kournish El-Nile El-Maddi, Cairo
Fax: +202 795 8048