Will Macron Undermine Egypt’s human rights file during Al-Sisi’s visit?

On Tuesday, the 24th of October, French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, as part of his official visit to Paris from October 23 to 25 this month.

The French presidency said the two leaders are set to meet for the first time to discuss files of mutual interest.

It is worth to mention that Sisi’s upcoming visit to France is the third since he took office in 2014 and the first since Macron was elected as a president in May 2017.

However, since news spread regarding al-Sisi’s visit to France, sounds of criticisms started to be heard regarding over human rights issues.

Egypt and France have nurtured closer economic and military ties in recent years and with Sisi’s rise to power that relationship has improved with both sides concerned by the political vacuum in Libya and the threat from jihadist groups in Egypt. However, human rights organizations at home and overseas have accused France under Macron of remaining silent in the face of increasing violations of freedoms by al-Sisi’s government as the 2018 presidential elections approach.

Human Right’s Crackdown under Al-Sisi Military Rule

Since the military coup launched by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi against Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, thousands of Egyptians have been held in jails and behind bars.

The Egyptian security forces used mass arbitrary arrests to suppress demonstrations and dissent, detaining journalists, human rights defenders and protesters, and restricted the activities of human rights organizations. Hundreds of Egyptians were subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other officers.

“Under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian police and National Security agents have routinely used torture and enforced disappearances against both criminal suspects and perceived political opponents with near impunity,” according to Human Rights Watch.

It added,”Security forces used excessive lethal force during regular policing and in incidents that may have amounted to extrajudicial executions. Mass unfair trials continued before civilian and military courts. The authorities failed to adequately investigate human rights violations and bring perpetrators to justice.”

In the same context, Amnesty International has mentioned that “Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power, prolonged pre-trial detention has become a systematic means of punishing dissenters rather than a preventative and exceptional measure.” It added, “The failure of the judiciary to ensure that pre-trial detention is only used when necessary, in exceptional circumstances, is significantly eroding its independence.”

Egyptian Journalists in Cells 

Since the military coup, the Egyptian authorities have restricted the rights to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in law and practice.

Journalists, activists and others faced arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges that included inciting or participating in protests, disseminating “false rumors”, defaming officials and damaging morality.

One of those Egyptian journalists and human rights defender, Hisham Gaafar, who will have completed two years in arbitrary pre-trial detention on 21 October. Gaafar is being held in inhumane conditions and prolonged solitary confinement causing his health to deteriorate seriously.

In October 2015, the Egyptian security forces arrested Hisham Gaafar. Since then, a judicial panel has repeatedly renewed his pre-trial detention without examining the scant evidence prosecutors have presented against him.

According to Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director at Amnesty International, “It is disgraceful that Hisham Gaafar has been forced to spend two years behind bars. His arbitrary and prolonged pre-trial detention is another shameful illustration of how Egypt’s judiciary is abusing the criminal justice system to punish peaceful critics and dissidents.”

She said, “Hisham Gaafar is a prisoner of conscience solely detained for his human rights work. He should never have been detained in the first place. His prolonged and arbitrary detention is a flagrant breach of both Egyptian and international law that the judges should not allow to be extended by even one more day.”

Hisham Gaafar, 53, is the director of Mada Foundation for Media Development, an NGO which provides consultation, training and information on a variety of human rights and development topics. He had been researching sectarian violence and democratic transition before his arrest.

Officers from National Security Agency of the Ministry of Interior seized Gaafar from his office in Cairo without an arrest warrant in 2015. They searched the premises and confiscated documents and office laptops. At the same time, another force raided his home in Cairo. Gaafar ‘s wife and his children were held inside the house for 17 hours before leaving with their cell phones, laptops and personal documents.

He is being detained on the unfounded charges of receiving funds from foreign agencies for “the purpose of harming national security” and belonging to “a banned group” – the Muslim Brotherhood. If Gaafar is convicted, he could face a sentence of life in prison.

It is worth to mention that according to “Article 143 “of Egypt’s Code of Criminal Procedure, the maximum period of pre-trial detention must not exceed six months for defendants accused of crimes punished by up to three years in prison, 18 months for crimes punished by up to 15 years in prison and two years for crimes punished by death or life imprisonment.

Therefore, “The judges reviewing Hisham Gaafar’s detention are therefore obliged, by law, to release him once he completes two years in pre-trial detention. His next review session is scheduled for 26 October, “according to Amnesty International.

Moreover, since his arrest the Supreme Sate Security Prosecution has failed to present any evidence justifying his continued detention, according to his lawyer Karim Abdelrady, from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

He added that the prosecution has based its investigation on reports from the National Security Agency and lawyers have not been allowed any access to the case file.

Hisham Gaafar has been detained in al-Aqrab prison-known Scorpion Cemetery- as in hard conditions and has been in prolonged solitary confinement for the past seven months.

After his arrest in October 2015, Hisham Gaafar described his prison cell at al-Aqrab like being in “a grave”. Gaafar is not allowed to perform his regular exercise outside the cell. Only occasionally the prison guards allow him to walk along the corridor of his ward for between 30 and 60 minutes. However, he is confined to his cell for 24 hours during the other times.

Amnesty cited his relatives saying that his cell lacks a bed or mattresses, proper lighting and ventilation; and is infested by insects due to sewage leaks.

Amnesty International reported that his wife, Manar Tantawie, saying that since March 2017, his family has only been able to visit him four times – for less than 15 minutes each time. She also added that he has been suffering from optic nerve atrophy in both eyes and an enlarged prostate.

The poor prison conditions and the lack of proper food in prison had led to the deterioration of his health, according to Gaafar’s wife. She also said the family had submitted petitions and complaints to the President, the Public Prosecutor and the Minister of Interior calling for his release.

Najia Bounaim said,” Holding detainees in squalid prison conditions is not just cruel and inhumane, it is a violation of international law which in certain circumstances could amount to torture.”

Former Presidential Candidate Facing Trial  

The Egyptian authorities have continued their crackdown on political opposition ahead of the upcoming 2018 presidential elections. Amnesty International stated that the authorities have arrested at least 36 people in 17 cities from five opposition parties and political youth groups. It is worth to mention that many were arrested in connection with comments they posted online about the elections.

Among those who have faced arrest is the former presidential candidate and prominent human rights lawyer Khaled Ali who was detained yesterday and released today on bail. He will now face trial on Monday for “violating public morals”.

If Khaled Ali is convicted he will face a year in prison or a fine.  He would also be barred from running for the presidency.  He acknowledged that he was considering a renewed presidential bid for 2018 elections.

Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s campaigns director for North Africa, said “The presidential elections are not scheduled to take place until 2018, yet the Egyptian authorities seem intent on pre-emptively crushing any potential rivals to maintain their grip on power.”

It seems that Khaled Ali’s arrest and prosecution was clearly politically motivated.

Najia Bounaim said, “Khaled Ali’s arrest and prosecution was clearly politically motivated. The Egyptian authorities must drop the absurd charge he is facing and end the smear campaign against him.”

Moreover, the members of Khaled Ali’s party Aish we Horreiya (Bread and Freedom) party were also among those targeted by the wave of arrests.

The former presidential candidate was first summoned by the prosecutor in Giza for questioning on 23 May. His lawyer, Negad al Borei, who attended the interrogation session, said that he was charged with making physical gestures “that violate public morals”.

The charge relates to a photo showing Khalid Ali celebrating with his supporters outside the High Administrative Court, after winning a prominent case to reverse a government decision to hand over control of two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

Khaled’s lawyer said that the prosecutor refused to share a copy of the case file and the video evidence against him.

In the same context, Amnesty International has interviewed 13 lawyers, four human rights researchers and 14 family members about the crackdown which has targeted members of political parties, opposition groups and political activists who have criticized Abdel Fattah al-Sisi online from across the country in recent weeks.

According to Amnesty, “At least 26 people are still detained on a series of vaguely worded counter-terrorism related charges, including belonging to groups that are attempting to overthrow the government and in some cases “insulting the President”via social media and “misusing social media platforms.”

Two others have been released on bail and six others were released without bail, all pending investigations in connection with the same charges. If convicted they could face between five and 25 years in prison. Security forces arrested two other members of the Dostour party on 24 May, but their whereabouts remain unknown.

Najia Bounaim said, “The crackdown on political activists is yet another sign of Egyptian authorities’ desire to crush any peaceful opposition and stifle alternative views instead of allowing Egyptians to have a say in their future.”

Therefore, Najia Bounaim said, “The Egyptian authorities must halt this wave of arrests and prosecutions of peaceful activists.”

Four human rights lawyers in Cairo who are representing nine of those accused told Amnesty International that the evidence submitted against their clients included Facebook posts and old political posters and flyers “found in their homes”.

In at least 29 cases members of Egypt’s National Security Agency broke into activists’ homes in the early hours of the morning before detaining them for several hours and questioning them in the absence of their lawyers.

“The wide-scale and coordinated nature of the crackdown against political activists makes it even more chilling,” said Najia Bounaim.

She added, “The authorities are shamelessly using the draconian counter-terrorism law to round up young political activists for social media posts merely criticizing al-Sisi.”

Those arrested include seven members and former members from April 6 Youth group, a political group that gained prominence after the 25 January revolution. The two co-founders of the group had previously been imprisoned for three years in November 2013 and now face three more years of probation. They also include four members of Dostour, a political party founded in 2012 and one member from the Socialist People’s Alliance Party, as well as one from the Egyptian Popular Current, a political party that is in the process of registration and supported former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi in the 2014 Presidential election against  al-Sisi.

Torturing Political Activists

In September 2017,Human Rights Watch(HRW) has released a report titled, “We Do Unreasonable Things Here” that highlighted the torture and abuse in Egypt’s prisons under al-Sisi’s military rule. HRW report was based on interviews with 19 former detainees and the family of a 20th detainee who were tortured between 2014 and 2016. The report showed how police and officers of the National Security Agency regularly use torture during their investigations to force perceived dissidents to confess or divulge information, or to punish them.

According to the report, former detainees stated what could be described as an “an assembly line of abuse aimed at preparing fabricated cases against suspected dissidents, beginning at the point of arbitrary arrest, progressing to torture and interrogation during periods of enforced disappearance, and concluding with presentation before prosecutors, who often pressure detainees to confirm their confessions and take no measures to investigate the violations against them.”

One of those is Khaled (not his real name), a 29-year-old accountant, on January 30, 2015, he was arrested by National Security agents after he finished work in Hadara, a neighborhood in central Alexandria, and was preparing to drive home. They took him in a microbus to the Alexandria Security Directorate.

As soon as he arrived, officers subjected him to a “welcoming party,” a term Egyptians use for collective beatings administered by police to new detainees, according to HRW.

Khaled said it felt like they were hitting him with sticks and metal bars. Then they took him to the fourth floor of the directorate, a place that he said was known among Alexandria residents for torture. They put Khaled in a room, blindfolded him, and cuffed his hands behind his back. A man came into the room and began asking Khaled about a series of police car burning that had occurred in Alexandria in 2014.

Khaled said, “He told me, ‘Are you going to admit on your own, or do we have to use force?’ So, I said, ‘I don’t know anything about what you’re talking about.”

Someone stripped off Khaled’s clothes and began to shock him with an electric stun gun, beginning at the top of his body and moving down to his genitals and legs. But Khaled continued to deny the allegations, so they began to shock him with electricity from live wires. Khaled could hear the crackling of electricity as someone touched the wires to each other.

According to HRW report, “The interrogations and torture continued for 11 days, during which National Security officers kept Khaled with other detainees on the fourth floor.”

During some interrogations, they brought other individuals into the room and asked Khaled if he knew them. The officers allowed the detainees to wear pants but not shirts and kept an air conditioner running in their detention room, which in January made the temperature extremely cold.

On the fifth or sixth day, guards took Khaled and other detainees out of the room and led them down a long hallway. The officers told Khaled that they were going to videotape his confession.

When he refused, they took him back to what Khaled called the “torture room,” shocked him with electricity for around 30 minutes, and kicked him and beat him with fists. Then they led him back to the previous room and took off his blindfold.

A man in civilian clothes was holding a camera, and another man held a paper next to it on which the officers had written a confession. The interrogator tried to get Khaled to memorize the confession.

The paper read, “My name is such and such, and I’m responsible for this and that, and all of these were based on orders given by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Khaled said. “At first we did not want to do the video … They tried to have us memorize [it], but unfortunately we couldn’t.”

On the tenth day, guards brought Khaled into a room and put him in a chair. Khaled was still blindfolded, and his hands were tied behind his back. A man with a voice Khaled did not recognize began to speak.

“Forget everything that’s happened,”the man said. He told Khaled he was aware that Khaled knew nothing about the police car burning and did not know the other men detained in connection with the case but that he was going to formally accuse Khaled nonetheless. The man asked a guard to bring juice for Khaled. “Tomorrow you’ll be presented to the prosecution,”he said. “You have to state that you have committed all these accusations.”

“I won’t admit anything or sign anything, because I didn’t do anything,”Khaled responded. The man threw the juice in Khaled’s face. Other men lifted him up and led him to another room.

The man said,”You’re going to sign, one way or another.”

The men lifted Khaled’s arms up from behind him and hung him from the top edge of a door in a stress position, putting excruciating pressure on his shoulders. They tied his legs together, and someone began to shock him with an electric stun gun on his head, armpits, and genitals. Others beat him with wooden sticks and metal bars.

During the beating, Khaled said, “he has [my] whole body in front of him and he can do whatever he wants.””Khaled lost consciousness, but the police threw hot water on him to wake him up.

At around 10 or 11am the next day, 11 days after his arrest, a chief prosecutor and four assistant prosecutors came to the fourth floor of the security directorate to question him for the first time.

Where will the French Government Stand? 

In the end, those human rights cases are just three among hundreds detainees in al-Sisi security regime. The question is; “Will the French government act with a blind eye towards al-Sisi regime repressive practices?”” Will it put the human rights file among its top priorities or the French officials will say that the new administration is following a policy of not openly criticizing countries over human rights?”

Earlier, Human Rights Watch slammed French “indulgence” towards repression in Egypt.

According to two NGO officials aware of talks between “Macron and human rights groups on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September, Macron had told them that while he acknowledged the worsening human rights situation in Egypt, his priority was to ensure Sisi continued to fight terrorist groups,” as reported by Reuters.

Under the former government, France concluded several major military agreements with Egypt, including the sale of 24 Rafale combat aircraft, a multi-mission frigate and two Mistral warships in contracts worth some six billion euros.