Al-Sisi in Portugal: Will human rights take priority over business and interests in Portugal’s foreign policy?!

Abdel Fattah al Sisi will pay an official visit to Portugal on November 21, 22, 2016, according to Egypt’s State Information Service official website. Al-Sisi’s visit to Portugal aims to enhance bilateral ties in the coming period. The official website said, “During his visit, al-Sisi will also tackle ways of promoting political and diplomatic ties along with promoting cooperation in economy, scientific research, and defense spheres.” Al-Sisi will meet several Portuguese officials, particularly the Portuguese president, prime minister, parliament speaker and Lisbon mayor. He will also meet with representatives of several academic and scientific institutions along with the Portuguese business community. Egypt’s State Information Service cited the Portuguese ambassador in Cairo Madalena Fischer saying that “al-Sisi’s visit to Portugal will boost cooperation between the two countries in the political, economic and cultural domains.” She also said, “During the visit, al-Sisi will have important talks with the Portuguese president, prime minister, parliament speaker and Lisbon mayor on means of promoting cooperation and issues of mutual interest such as the developments in the Middle East, the Libyan crisis and fighting terrorism and illegal migration.” She also added that al-Sisi will have meetings with Portuguese businesspersons on bolstering investments in Egypt. The Portuguese envoy said that Egypt is a promising portal of Portuguese exports to African countries, especially after the launch of the free trade zone of the three major African blocs (COMESA, SADC and EAC) in 2015. Fischer said, “Several Portuguese companies had shown interest to exploit the investment opportunities available in the Egyptian market especially after the latest economic decisions in the country, mainly the liberalization of the local currency’s exchange rate.” She pointed to promising fields for cooperation, including ports, pharmaceuticals, technology and new and renewable energy, urging the international community to back economic reform measures in Egypt, as reported by the State Information Service website . Al-Sisi’s visit will be the first by an Egyptian leader to Portugal in 20 years.

However, will al-Sisi’s shameful human rights violations records act as a barrier for maintaining bilateral ties between Egypt and Portugal?

Outlook on al Sisi’s human rights violations

The Egyptian authorities have engaged in one of the widest arrest campaigns in the country’s modern history, targeting a broad spectrum of political opponents since the military coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi against Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi. Between June 2013 and May 2014, Egyptian authorities arrested or charged at least 41,000 people, and 26,000 more may have been arrested since the beginning of 2015. Enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, military trials, and human rights violations at Egypt’s prisons have marked al Sisi’s reign.

– Enforced disappearance:

In July 2016, Amnesty International has released a report saying that hundreds of Egyptians have been forcibly disappeared and tortured in a “sinister” campaign to wipe out peaceful dissent in the most populous country in the Arab world, reported The Guardian.

“Enforced disappearance has become a key instrument of state policy in Egypt. Anyone who dares to speak out is at risk, with counter-terrorism being used as an excuse to abduct, interrogate and torture people who challenge the authorities,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director.

Egypt’s police have been implicated in an “unprecedented spike” in enforced disappearances since early 2015 aimed at quashing dissent, Amnesty International said in its report.

The London-based rights organization said abuses have escalated since the military coup in 2013 led by Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ousting the first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi as the Egyptian security forces have been launching a massive crackdown on Islamist and secular opposition. However, most of those who have “disappeared” are among the Islamic opposition and the supporters of Mohamed Morsi.

Even children weren’t saved from the Egyptian security forces’ violations. Children as young as 14 as well as students, political activists and protesters have vanished without any trace after security forces raided their homes.

Many have been held for months at a time and kept blindfolded and handcuffed. At least 34,000 people are behind bars, the government admits. The report said children were among those being kept at undisclosed locations for up to several months at a time “to intimidate opponents and wipe out peaceful dissent.”

The report documents 17 cases, including five children, who had disappeared for periods of “between several days to seven months,” according to the statement. One of them, Mazen Mohamed Abdallah, who was 14 in September, had been subjected to “horrendous abuse” including “being repeatedly raped with a wooden stick in order to extract a false ‘confession’,” Amnesty said. Another child of the same age when arrested in January, Aser Mohamed, “was beaten, given electric shocks all over his body and suspended from his limbs in order to extract a false ‘confession’,” reported the rights watchdog. Moreover, the Amnesty report highlighted that enforced disappearances have hiked since Magdy Abd el-Ghaffar was appointed to head the ministry in March 2015. Abd el-Ghaffar used to serve in Egypt’s state security investigations, the secret police force notorious for abuses under Mubarak. Detainees said methods of torture were the same as those used in the Mubarak era.

The report sheds light not only on the brutality faced by those forcibly disappeared but also to the overlapping relation and coordination between national security forces and judicial authorities, who have been prepared to lie to cover their tracks or fail to investigate torture allegations, making them complicit in serious human rights violations.

The report says prosecutors have based charges on “confessions” extracted under coercion but they didn’t investigate torture allegations by ordering medical examinations. Detainees have been referred by prosecutors to an independent medical examination in very rare occasions and their lawyers have not been permitted to see the results.

Amnesty documented the cases of 17 people who were held incommunicado for periods ranging between several days to seven months and denied access to their lawyers or families or any independent judicial oversight.

According to the report quoted from victims and witnesses testimonies, “A typical disappearance starts with security officers in plain clothes, supported by heavily armed black-clad special forces, arriving at a suspect’s home at night or in the early hours and forcing their way in at gunpoint. Once inside, the officers detain, handcuff and blindfold the suspects, search for weapons and other incriminatory material and seize mobile phones and computers.” One security officer told a detainee, “Do you think that you have a price?” “We can kill you and put you in a blanket and throw you in any trash bin and no one will ask about you.”

In the same context, the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), a non-governmental rights group, released a report on enforced disappearance covering the period from the beginning of January 2016 to the end of June. The Egyptian rights group said that it documented 1000 enforced disappearances cases in the first half of 2016, at a rate of 5 cases per day.

The ECRF has also reported “1000 cases of enforced disappearance of civilians by the security forces in the first half of this current year.” It pointed that,”232 citizens were subjected to enforced disappearance in January, 204 citizens in February, 184 citizens disappeared in March, 111 citizens disappeared in April, 201 in May, and 69 citizens disappeared in June, compared to 1873 cases of enforced disappearances in the whole year of 2015.” The local rights group said, “several cases appeared later in custody but after a long period of time and others are killed, most of these accusations are denied by the Ministry of Interior.”

It added that it documented 2811 cases of enforced disappearances by the Egyptian security since July 3 2013 (the date when Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically elected president, was ousted) till the end of last June. The ECRF explained that the enforced disappearance of the political activists aims to, “obtain confessions on certain information, or a certain case, or to force their relatives to surrender themselves in case they were wanted by the security forces.”

-Giulio Regini’s brutal death

Even foreigners weren’t excluded from Egypt’s terror regime.

In the same context, Amnesty’s July report on Egypt also pointed to the Ph.D. Italian student Giulio Regeni’s case as an example of enforced disappearance in Egypt.

The Cambridge graduate student has disappeared in January this year and was found dead with his body bearing signs of torture, in Cairo in February.

Amnesty’s Felix Jakens says, “The terrible injuries sustained by Giulio Regeni are similar to those suffered by numerous people interrogated by the Egyptian security forces – his case is just the tip of the iceberg.” “We fear Regeni was abducted by state agents and tortured to death, and until we get a thorough independent investigation into his death those suspicions are only going to grow.”

In fact, Egypt’s national security agency offices in Lazougly Square, Cairo, inside the interior ministry building hosts hundreds of people who are thought to be secretly held in.

The building is close to Tahrir Square, which witnessed January Revolution in 2011 that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 due to economic corruption, political dissent and above all human rights violations by security forces.

-Arbitrary detentions:

An Egyptian human rights organization has documented 26,207 detainmen

t incidents from the Egyptian security institutions in 18 months, as reported by the New Khalij.

This was mentioned in a report on the number of detainees and the arbitrary detention prisoners in a year and a half in Egypt. The report was released by the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedom (ECRF), a non-governmental rights organization.

In addition, the report stated that these numbers don’t include the detainment cases in North and South Sinai Governorate because of the difficulties in working in these areas due to security restrictions. According to the report, the cases of detainment and arbitrary detentions in 2015 were 23,000 incidents but the number of cases have reached nearly 3,207 incidents in the first half of the year 2016.

The rights organization said that there are indications, “Ensuring that the real numbers much exceed those mentioned” but it said that it couldn’t document all the cases because of the security restrictions.”

The expansion of military trials

Hundreds of civilians were referred to military courts by the Egyptian authorities based on October 2014 decree by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi allowing the military to assist police forces in the protection of public facilities. As a result, the decree opened the door for military trials for those accused of attacking such facilities. In this context, Human Rights organization reported unprecedented extension of military court authority in Egypt since 2013 military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi.

Military courts have tried at least 7,420 civilians who most of them were sentenced after mass trials that violate fundamental due process rights, and some courts relied on confessions extracted under torture, according to Human Rights Watch.

Nadim Houry, the HRW deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said “Apparently unsatisfied with tens of thousands already detained and speedy mass trials that discarded due process in the name of national security, al-Sisi essentially gave free rein to military prosecutors.” He added, “He has handed back to the military judiciary the powerful role it enjoyed in the months after Egypt’s uprising, when the nation was governed by a council of generals.”

According to the HRW report, “These military trials have swept up at least 86 children, as well as students, professors, and activists, including individuals who were forcibly disappeared and allegedly tortured. Military courts have handed down 21 death sentences since October 2014, though a lawyer with the Egyptian

Coordination for Rights and Freedoms said that none have yet been approved by the Supreme Military Court of Appeals.”

Human rights violations at Egypt’s prisons

In September 2016, Human Rights Watch released a report titled: “We are in Tombs: Abuses in Egypt’s Scorpion Prison” which highlights how the Egyptian authorities routinely abuse inmates in ways that may have contributed to the death of some of them.

The notorious Scorpion Prison which is known as the “Scorpion Cemetery” is a maximum-security prison in Cairo that holds many political prisoners. Scorpion prison is run by the National Security Agency of the Interior Ministry, then known as State Security Investigations, with extrajudicial authority, ignoring scores of court orders to lift arbitrary bans on access.

The notorious prison holds about 1,000 prisoners, relatives estimate. They include most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s top leadership, alleged members of the Islamic State extremist group, and various critics of al-Sisi’s government, including journalists and doctors.

According to the 80-page report, “Staff at Scorpion Prison beat inmates severely, isolate them in cramped “discipline” cells, cut off access to families and lawyers, and interfere with medical treatment.”

In addition, prisoners are treated by the officers of Egypt’s Interior Ministry in a cruel and inhuman way that probably amounts to torture in some cases and violates basic international norms for the treatment of prisoners. The abuse in Scorpion, where inmates are held in cells without beds or items for basic hygiene, has persisted with almost” no oversight from prosecutors and other watchdogs, behind a wall of secrecy kept in place by the Interior Ministry, “said the report.

Joe Stark, the deputy Middle-East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Scorpion Prison sits at the end of the state’s repressive pipeline, ensuring that political opponents are left with no voice and no hope.” He added, “Its purpose seems to be little more than a place to throw government critics and forget them.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 relatives of inmates held in Scorpion, two lawyers, and one former prisoner, and reviewed medical files and photos of sick and deceased prisoners.

Relatives stated that conditions in Scorpion deteriorated drastically in March 2015, when Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar was appointed by al-Sisi as interior minister. Between March and August 2015, Interior Ministry officials “banned all visits by families and lawyers, essentially cutting off the prison from the outside world.” As a result of the ban decision, the families were prevented from “delivering much-needed food and medicine otherwise unavailable in the prison – where there is no hospital or regular visits from a doctor – and amounted to what relatives described as a “starvation” policy that left inmates sick and gaunt, reported HRW.

Accordingly, at least six Scorpion inmates died in custody between May and October 2015. Three of their families agreed to speak with Human Rights Watch. According to HRW,” Two of the men had been diagnosed with cancer and one with diabetes. Their relatives said that the authorities prevented the men from receiving timely treatment or medicine deliveries, refused to consider conditionally releasing them on medical grounds, and failed to investigate their deaths.”

Since the months-long visit ban in 2015, the Egyptian authorities at Scorpion “have continued to arbitrarily ban inmates from meeting their families or lawyers for weeks or months. They do not allow inmates to meet privately with their lawyers at any time. Officers, including some high-ranking Interior Ministry officials, have beaten and threatened inmates who went on hunger strike to protest conditions and humiliated and mistreated prominent prisoners during cell searches, “as stated by the report.

Human Rights Watch called “Egypt’s Interior Ministry should immediately end arbitrary visit bans, ensure regular access to doctors and medical treatment, and provide prisoners with minimum necessities for hygiene and comfort.” It also called the Egyptian government to allow international detention monitors to visit Scorpion, and form an independent national committee with the authority to make snap visits to prisons and other detention sites and submit complaints to a special prosecutor.

Moreover, “The Egyptian public prosecution should investigate deaths in custody and charge those with command responsibility for Scorpion in connection with any acts of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment, “said the HRW. Stork said, “Egypt’s detention system is overflowing with critics of the government.” He added, “Ending the abuses at Scorpion is a small step toward improving dire conditions across the country.”

No place for human rights organizations

Human Rights Watch warned that the existence of most prominent human rights organizations existence in Egypt has become at risk after the ruling of the Cairo criminal court on September 17 to freeze the assets of three groups, as well as the personal funds of five human rights defenders, as part of an investigation into their foreign funding. The ruling places the frozen assets under government custodianship, which means that the organizations and individuals can no longer make independent decisions about the seized money.

In a new report released by Human Rights Watch titled: “Ruling Risks Eradicating Human Rights Work”, Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director said, “Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country’s most prominent independent human rights defenders.”

Since Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian authorities have launched massive crackdown against political opposition and human rights organizations.

In 2014, Al-Sisi amended an article of the penal code which states that workers at NGO can receive a 25-year sentence if a judge determines that they received foreign funding for “pursuing acts harmful to national interests or destabilizing general peace or the country’s independence and its unity, or committing hostile acts against Egypt or harming security and public order.”

The amendment is wide open as it does not define exactly such acts.

Egypt’s court banned 12 NGO directors, founders, and staff members from leaving Egypt, including from some of these organizations. Activists said the travel bans are probably a prelude to the filing of criminal charges against them.

In December 2014, the first travel ban was issued against Esraa Abd al-Fattah, director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy. Followed by Nasser Amin, a member of the government-funded National Council for Human Rights, has also been banned from travel.

The investigation into the funding of local and foreign organizations started under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) rule in July 2011.

In 2013, a criminal trial that concluded handed down sentences of between one and five years to 43 employees of five foreign NGOs and ordered the organizations to close.

In 2014, the Justice Ministry requested the formation of a new panel of three investigative judges chosen by the Cairo Court of Appeals.

The panel began looking into the work and finances of independent Egyptian NGOs when the Social Solidarity Ministry gave groups an ultimatum to register under an onerous associations law dating to Mubarak’s presidency.

Authorities have also placed more crackdown and pressures on human rights activists. Negad al-Borai- human rights lawyer involved in drafting an anti-torture law, was interrogated at least six times in April 2015.

She added, “Egypt’s international partners should not be fooled by repression cloaked in the guise of legalistic procedure.”

Human Rights Watch said,” UN Human Rights Council and member states should condemn the current crackdown on civil society members and demand concrete measures to improve respect for human rights, including the withdrawal of the current draft law on associations.”

According to Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights “Egypt, as a state party, to ensure freedom of association and remove any unlawful restrictions.” In addition, Human Rights Council resolution 22/6 on protecting human rights defenders calls upon states to ensure “that no law should criminalize or delegitimize activities in defense of human rights on account of the origin of funding thereto.”

Lama Fakih said, “Egypt’s international partners and should speak up now to prevent the disappearance of independent human rights groups,” she added, “Members of the UN Human Rights Council should live up to their commitment to defend human rights defenders by demanding reforms from President al-Sisi and the Egyptian government.”

The question is: Will human rights take priority over business and interests in Portugal’s foreign policy?!