Egyptian courts continued to hand down mass death sentences over the quarter. On 2 July, a court in Giza province upheld death sentences for 20 men charged with killing policemen in Kerdasa, Giza province, in 2013. Eighty others received life sentences in the same case. On 29 July, Cairo Criminal Court sentenced eight people to death on accusations of storming a police station in Helwan, southern Cairo, in 2013; they were charged with killing police personnel and destroying the police station. Another nine people were sentenced to death in Giza on 17 September for killing the bodyguard of former Egyptian Central Bank governor, Hesham Ramez, in February 2013.
On the other hand, on 31 July Cairo Criminal Court reduced death sentences handed down to ten people for organising a terrorist cell to life imprisonment, while the Court of Cassation overturned the death penalty for 27 people charged with breaking into – and setting fire to – the Ghanayim police station in Asyut province in 2013. The 27 were originally sentenced in 2014 as part of a group of 127; the rest of the defendants received various sentences in absentia.
Egypt continued to block access to websites that were critical of the government. On 7 September, authorities blocked access to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) website. This came just one day after HRW released a report accusing President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of allowing Egyptian police and national security officers to use torture with impunity. In its report, HRW said that torture techniques in Egypt were common and included beatings, electric shocks, stress positions and, at times, rape. The group also said that this constituted a ‘crime against humanity’ under international law. Similarly, the UN Committee Against Torture said on 9 September that human-rights abuses were routine practice in Egypt; in a report following a five-year investigation, the committee also said that the military, police and prison officials carried out torture and that impunity for such abuses was widespread.
In September, police launched a wide-scale crackdown on Egypt’s LGBTI community after a group of people raised a rainbow flag at a music concert in Cairo on 22 September. Police arrested seven people in Cairo on 25 September, accusing them of ‘promoting sexual deviancy’, followed by a further 15 arrests on 30 September on the same charges. Although homosexuality is not officially illegal in Egypt, gay have often been targeted and charged with ‘deviancy’ and ‘debauchery’. On 30 September, Amnesty International (AI) said that six of those originally arrested would be subjected to forced physical examinations ahead of their trial on 1 October. In a statement, AI said that such examinations were ‘abhorrent and amount to torture’.
Finally, there were concerns over the fate of lawyer Ibrahim Metwaly who had been investigating the murder of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni in Cairo. Metwaly was prevented from flying to Geneva on 10 September to attend a UN conference, and initially disappeared until state prosecutors ordered his detention. On 13 September, state prosecutors announced Metwaly’s detention for a further 15 days, pending investigation into charges of joining an illegal group. His detention came despite Italy’s decision in August to recall its ambassador to Cairo, more than a year after recalling him in April 2016 in a bid to put pressure on Cairo to share evidence of the investigation into Regeni’s murder.
Eighty-two civilians were killed in acts of violence in Egypt this quarter, including in unclaimed attacks in North Sinai province.
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and its Egyptian affiliate, Wilayat Sinai, continued to target the country’s Coptic Christian minority. On 9 April, the group claimed responsibility for two suicide-vest attacks on churches in Tanta, Gharbia province, and in Alexandria; together, at least 46 people were killed. The group also attacked a convoy of Christians in Minya province on 26 May, killing at least 28 people. ISIS had released video footage on 5 May warning Egypt’s Muslims to stay away from Christian gatherings and government facilities. On 6 May, a Coptic civilian was killed by unidentified gunmen upon his return to his home in Arish, North Sinai province. The attacks followed six smaller attacks in February, and represent a continuation of ISIS’s strategy to target minority groups and stir sectarian violence.
Meanwhile, video footage released on social media on 20 April showed Egyptian military officers shooting unarmed detainees in North Sinai province. Subsequently, the military made it seem as though the deaths were a result of armed conflict. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International issued separate statements authenticating the footage. The video was thought to have been recorded on 6 December, when the military announced the killing of eight suspected militants in a security raid in an unspecified location in the province.
Egyptian courts continued to hand down mass death sentences in cases involving violence against state institutions. A criminal court in Cairo recommended the death sentence for 30 people on 17 June, in a case related to the 2015 assassination of public prosecutor Hisham Barakat, for which the government blames the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. On 24 April, the court sentenced 20 people to death for their alleged role in the storming of a police station in Kerdasa, Giza province. Furthermore, a military court in Kafr el-Sheikh province upheld death sentences for seven people in relation to the bombing of a stadium in the province in April 2015. Human-rights organisations said these seven defendants were forcibly disappeared and tortured while in detention.
On 23 June, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued presidential pardons to 502 prisoners for the Eid al-Fitr holidays. Egypt’s state-run news agency said a ‘large number’ of those pardoned were involved in cases of protest and assembly, though it did not specify a number.
Government attacks on civil society and press freedoms continued this quarter. On 24 May, Egypt took the unprecedented step of blocking access to 21 news websites, accusing them of supporting terrorism and spreading false news. This marked the first time that Egyptian authorities had acknowledged blocking specific web pages. By 13 June, the number of websites blocked had reached 64 – this included VPN services that were normally used to bypass such blocks.
Authorities also targeted non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by passing a new law regulating their work on 29 May. The changes restrict NGOs to carrying out only development and social work, and impose jail sentences of up to five years for non-compliance. Human-rights groups and activists said that the law effectively bans their work and puts their staff at risk of imprisonment. The government has long accused human-rights groups of accepting foreign funding to carry out political work against the state. The amended law was related to an ongoing court case into the foreign funding of NGOs; in the latest development judges summoned the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Mohamed Zaree, for questioning in relation to the case. Zaree was banned from travelling in 2016 as part of the investigation. On 31 May, three prominent US Senators issued a statement criticising the new law, calling it ‘draconian’.
Early 2017 saw an uptick in violence by Wilayat Sinai, the militant group affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, towards minority groups in the peninsula. After beheading two civilians from the Sufi branch of Islam in November, Wilayat Sinai released a video on 28 March showing footage of the attack and accusing the victims of practising witchcraft.
The group perpetrated a total of six attacks against Coptic Christian civilians in February, killing seven people. The sectarian attacks can be seen as part of a larger strategy by the Islamic State in Egypt – on 19 February the group released a 20-minute video threatening Copts in the country, which featured Abu Abdullah al-Masri, who is allegedly responsible for the December attack on a Cairo cathedral. Sectarian attacks have been highly instrumental for the Islamic State, attracting significant international media coverage.
Following these attacks, around 25 families fled North Sinai, arriving at the evangelical church in Ismailia, northeast Egypt. Church officials said a further 100 families and 200 students were expected to arrive. A few days later, parliamentary affairs minister Omar Marwan said that 118 Coptic families had been rehoused in various cities throughout Egypt. However, the head of parliament's human rights committee, Alaa Abed, said on 3 March that displaced families would return to their homes 'soon'. Abed did not provide additional details or evidence.
On 5 March security personnel in Nazlet al-Nakhl, Minya province, prevented Christian families from attending Sunday Mass at the local Marmina church. The church's priest was later barred from entering the premises on orders from security officials, who cited security concerns as the reason for their actions but did not clarify the nature of these concerns. Local reports say security officials were worried about the village's Muslim residents' attitudes towards the building of a church there. There is long-held anger in Coptic communities about the security apparatus interfering to prevent the building of churches.
Civilians in Arish, North Sinai, expressed frustration with the violence and lack of transparency in security practices in Sinai, demanding an independent investigation into the killing of ten people on 13 January. Security forces initially said that ten suspected terrorists, who had been previous involved in attacks on policemen, were killed during a security operation. However, family members said six of those who were killed had already been in police custody for months, after having been arbitrarily detained by security forces. Hundreds of people participated in demonstrations against the interior ministry, and at tribal gatherings on 6 February, residents from Arish declared a period of civil disobedience beginning on 11 February. Families said they would not pay water, electricity and telephone bills.
On 12 January, a Cairo criminal court approved the listing of 1,538 people as terrorists for allegedly assisting the Muslim Brotherhood by providing finance and helping conduct military training. The effects of the decision were travel bans, asset freezes, loss of political rights and passport cancellations. Those listed were not informed of the decision beforehand and could not contest it. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the decision made 'a mockery of due process'.
Elsewhere, on 13 March President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi issued a pardon to 203 people serving prison sentences for taking part in political demonstrations. No official list of names was released for those pardoned, nor was it clear which demonstrations were being referred to.
Meanwhile, government attacks on civil society and the media continued. On 9 March, security personnel raided the offices of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a prominent NGO working on torture rehabilitation. The government had ordered the closure of the NGO last year, citing unspecified violations, although the closure was largely recognised as political. Earlier, on 11 January, a Cairo court ruled to freeze the accounts of three different human rights organisations, including Nazra for Feminist Studies, and those of their executive directors.
Significantly, on 1 January, prominent journalist and television host Ibrahim Eissa announced the termination of his programme, one of the few remaining TV shows that had been critical of the government. Eissa cited 'pressures' on him, although he did not provide further details. On 5 March, Eissa was summoned by prosecutors for questioning on charges of 'insulting parliament'. The charge was the first of its kind in Egypt. He was later released on bail on 6 March.
During the quarter, a number of civilians were killed in North Sinai, mostly by Wilayet Sinai, the militant group that is dominant there. Wilayet Sinai released images showing the execution of a prominent Sufi cleric in Arish, North Sinai, who was accused of practising witchcraft. The group also assassinated a top cleric who had been abducted one month earlier. And there were two civilian deaths attributed to mortar shells in Rafah, which were likely to have been fired by Wilayet Sinai in an attempt to target security forces.
In Cairo, a bomb placed inside a football killed one child in Manshiyet Nasser, after children had found the ball in a mobile rubbish bin. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
On 12 December, around 100 members of parliament proposed amending the constitution and criminal procedures law to allow all terrorism-related offences to be referred to military courts. The current constitution allows the military prosecution of civilians in cases of direct assault on military activities. This law has faced heavy criticism, as many civilians have been tried in military courts without any public purview.
Furthermore, parliament passed a controversial NGO law in December, amid criticism from civil society groups and political parties. The law creates a ten-member regulatory committee, including members from the interior and defence ministries, with the authority to examine field research before publication and give final approval on funding arrangements between local and international groups. Later in the month, an NGO law was approved that imposes fines of up to US$61,000 on organisations that conduct fieldwork or opinion polls and activities that conflict with ‘national security’. Several civil society groups and political parties issued a statement condemning the law, saying it ‘effectively eradicates civil society’.
The laws are in line with the state’s larger crackdowns on civil society. A leading women’s rights leader, Azza Soliman, discovered in November that her bank account had been frozen after a court order, in a case related to the foreign funding of NGOs. Soliman is the head of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. The director of the Nazra for Feminist Studies, Mozn Hassan, faced a similar situation. Furthermore, a prominent television host, Amr El-Leithy, was banned from travel upon orders from the public prosecutor – in October, El-Leithy had aired an interview with a driver who heavily criticised the government’s economic and political policies. Several other human rights figures were banned from travel, including Malek Adly, a lawyer, and Aida Seif al-Dawla, the head of the Al Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence – the centre’s bank accounts were temporarily frozen by the Ministry for Social Solidarity. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on Egypt to end its ‘abusive and arbitrary’ travel bans imposed on human rights workers and activists.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi ordered in late October the formation of a committee to consider cases of detained youth who have not yet received final verdicts, and in mid-November he issued a decree pardoning 82 young detainees who had been imprisoned on charges of protesting. However, in late November, a court sentenced 11 people to five years in prison for joining the protests on 11 November that had sought to draw attention to the declining economic situation in Egypt. They were charged with protesting without a permit, possessing publications that incite against the state, and promoting false news to discredit the reputation of the state.
In late November, the Court of Cassation accepted the prosecution’s appeal against the release of journalist and researcher Ismail Alexandrani, thereby renewing his detention for 45 days. A court also sentenced the head of the Journalists’ Syndicate and two of its board members to two years in prison for harbouring fugitives inside the Syndicate premises in May. The Undersecretary of the Doctors’ Syndicate, Mona Mina, was released on bail in early December after a four-hour interrogation for spreading false news regarding the availability of medical supplies in state hospitals. Pharmacies ran out of medicine in November following the floating of the currency, leading to concerns over an imminent crisis in healthcare.
There was growing scrutiny during the quarter over the conditions faced by prisoners in Egypt. Human Rights Watch called on the interior ministry to end abuses against prisoners in Aqrab prison, south of Cairo. In a newly published report, it highlighted abuse towards inmates that has resulted in a number of deaths in custody. The state-affiliated human rights watchdog, National Council for Human Rights, also criticised torture in state prisons, but it identified only three deaths from torture last year – significantly lower than the figure reported by independent organisations.
There were several hunger strikes against systematic maltreatment of prisoners. One case is that of Amr Ali, a coordinator of the 6 April movement, who is serving a two-year sentence for protesting without a licence. Another example is the leader of a prominent Ultras football group, who has been held in pre-trial status in solitary confinement in Aqrab prison on charges of inciting violence at a football stadium in 2015. Four more detainees announced hunger strikes in protest over security forces’ unwillingness to allow them food, medicine and family visits. The detainees have been held at Qasr El-Aini hospital in central Cairo since April due to deteriorating health.
Amnesty International reported that Egyptian police abducted and tortured at least several hundred people, with an average rate of three or four people disappearing every day. Dozens of protesters were arrested for protesting without a warrant, including some who were arrested for causing a ‘negative atmosphere’ and ‘creating crises’. Military courts, furthermore, continued to issue mass prison sentences, including the sentencing of 418 people in Minya province. Five minors were also sentenced to five-year prison sentences and a fine of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$5,000) for protesting, and seven people were sentenced to death for their role in the killing of former assistant security chief Nabil Farrag in September 2013.
Parliamentarians rejected a motion passed by the Irish parliament calling for the release of Irish–Egyptian citizen Ibrahim Halawa, who has been in jail since August 2013 on charges of premeditated murder and belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. In a statement, legislators said the demand amounts to interference in the country’s domestic judicial affairs. Hillary Clinton similarly called on Egypt to release US–Egyptian citizen and NGO worker Aya Hegazy, who was arrested in 2014 for joining protests organised by the Muslim Brotherhood.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi sporadically pardoned prisoners. On the occasion of Eid al-Adha, he issued a decree pardoning 759 prisoners, most of whom had received criminal charges. Political activists criticised the decision not to include any political prisoners on the list of those pardoned. Only a handful of rights lawyers and activists were released from prison this quarter. This includes three activists who had been in pre-trial detention since January, when they were arrested during a series of raids ahead of the anniversary of the 25 January uprising.
Civil society organisations faced ongoing crackdowns. The assets of several human rights organisations and workers were frozen as part of a long-running investigation into foreign funding of NGOs. Furthermore, the Minister for Higher Education said the upcoming student union elections would not include the Egyptian Student Union, an umbrella organisation consisting of representatives from the student unions of different universities. The union was dissolved in 2015, as it was a source of protest against the government. Security officials also raided the offices of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an organisation working as legal counsel to the family of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, warned about the increasing restrictions on civil society organisations and human rights workers throughout Egypt. He argued that the government is ‘systematically attacking civil society in an effort to silence its voice’. Egypt was nevertheless elected to a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, after securing 173 votes from 193 General Assembly countries. The three-year term is set to begin in 2017.
Finally, attacks by armed groups in North Sinai have resulted in at least 28 civilian deaths, including those of three children. Many of the attacks appeared to be deliberate. In one case, militants opened fire at Zuhur school in Arish and killed a child.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi extended by another two years a controversial law that places public facilities under military jurisdiction. The law has been used to try thousands of civilians in military court, with many continuing to receive hasty sentences for belonging to a terrorist cell or undermining the state.
The cabinet also extended the state of emergency in North Sinai in May for an additional three months. The state of emergency, which has been in place since mid-2013, was criticised by parliamentarians from North Sinai, who requested a reduction in curfew hours and for the government to make provisions for food, shelter and basic health care.
Armed attacks in North Sinai resulted in multiple civilian deaths. Some were errant, such as an attack on a home that killed two civilians in Sheikh Zuweid and an explosion in Rafah that killed a child. But residents reported that Sinai Province killed civilians over cooperation with security forces: a man who delivered food to an army soldier in Arish, two civilians who refused to cooperate with militants, and a tribesman who assisted the army counter-terrorism operations. A Coptic Christian priest was also shot dead on 30 June after a sermon in Arish. His death coincided with inter-communal sectarian clashes in Minya, after reports of an affair between a Christian man and Muslim woman. Both sides attacked the homes and properties of one another, and during the clashes a woman was beaten and stripped naked on the street. The incident sparked widespread outrage in Egypt.
The government made several arrests, but many pointed out that it has continued to systematically restrict civil liberties. For example, an activist – Mina Thabet – who works on religious freedoms and minority rights was arrested in May, charged with attempting to overthrow the government and belonging to a terrorist organisation. He was released on 20 June on bail of US$1000.
Thabet’s arrest was part of a larger trend to crack down on freedom of speech and civil society. In mid-June, a Cairo court froze the assets of the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and anti-Violence Studies, an independent research institution, on charges of receiving foreign funds and defaming the country overseas. Similarly, the director of a leading women’s rights organisation was issued with a travel ban in June. A group of UN human rights experts released a statement criticising the country’s failure to provide a safe place for NGOs to operate.
Furthermore, there were reports that Egypt blocked Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ service in December 2015 because it did not allow the government to spy on users. Egypt has continued to use Facebook to identify dissidents. In April, the administrator of a page entitled ‘Break the Handcuffs’ was arrested over charges of incitement to violence against the police and judiciary.
Another activist and rights lawyer, Malek Adly, was accused of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, following his criticism of the government’s handover of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. This accusation – which carries a hefty jail sentence – has also been extended to four young people who were producing a documentary on the student movement in the country. And a satirical music troupe comprising five people was arrested on charges of instigating a revolt against the state and insulting state officials.
At the end of June, television host, Liliane Daoud, was arrested from her home in Cairo and deported to Lebanon on the day on which her contract with a private network ended. Police refused to show her an arrest warrant or give a reason for the arrest, but it is widely believed to be linked to her criticism of the government.
In additional, security forces arrested workers who planned demonstrations on Labour Day. At least 13 workers were detained from the Alexandria Shipyard Company for protesting on 22–23 May over unpaid work; they were charged with illegal protest and delaying work.
Finally, police violence resulted in multiple fatalities, many of which were related to small-scale disputes. One example was the death of a worker over a disagreement regarding the price of drinks in the New Cairo area. Another occurred when a police officer killed a civilian man while attempting to disperse a quarrel in southern Cairo; residents said the officer opened fire randomly from his home. Furthermore, at least six people died while in police custody this quarter. Rights groups condemned the deaths and accused the interior ministry of medical negligence. Policemen were also implicated in assaults against de
Sinai Province continued to engage in a campaign of extra-judicial executions and harassment towards residents accused of ‘spying’ for the army or intelligence. It posted online photos and videos of its operatives beheading two alleged spies in February, and it claimed to have killed almost 40 spies this year. The group also announced that it has set up a checkpoint near Arish in North Sinai for the purposes of hunting collaborators, and it increasingly pressured residents to cut all ties with the security institutions. Security forces in Egypt have still been unable to recruit tribal fighters in the fight against Sinai Province in North Sinai, with some sources saying there are only around 35 tribesmen assisting the military. This can be attributed in some part to fears of retribution from Sinai Province.
Militants stormed the premises of a cleaning firm in Arish in January, evacuated its workers and then set it ablaze, calling on the workers not to remove refuse from buildings where security personnel operate; they had threatened the firm prior to the incident. The increasing attacks on any form of cooperation between residents and the army demonstrate that Sinai Province views the disruption of governance of the area as a strategic asset for its own operations.
In January, Sinai Province released photos of the destruction that ensued following security operations, which included several destroyed mosques and other civilian facilities – this was part of the effort to discredit security forces. The group bombed the homes of policemen south of Arish, but its armed activity led to civilian deaths as well. An improvised explosive device (IED) targeting a police vehicle killed an 18-year-old student instead, and a mortar shell targeting security positions killed a child in Rafah. At least four other children were killed in fighting between security forces and armed groups in Rafah.
A Sinai-based rights group said that security forces detained two children in Central Sinai and killed them while they were in custody. But there has been no investigation into, or even acknowledgment of, the incident. Many believe that the army has behaved with impunity in North Sinai and that emergency security clauses have been used as a carte blanche. Parliament approved the extension of the state of emergency in North Sinai for another three months – its fifth extension.
Meanwhile, the death of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni in February triggered widespread outrage over the practice of forced disappearances, with citizens increasingly demanding that this be investigated. The interior ministry denied that the practice exists on an institutionalised scale, but local rights groups say that to date there at least 1,000 cases of forced disappearance. At the height of this controversy in mid-February, Egypt shut down the Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works with victims of torture.
A larger-scale crackdown on NGOs followed. Egypt re-opened an investigation into NGOs that have received foreign funding without prior government authorisation, threatening their personnel with criminal charges and up to 25 years in prison. The investigation, which dates back to 2011, is widely interpreted as an attempt to obstruct a dynamic civil society. The individuals who are implicated in the case include prominent activists and journalists.
Widespread restrictions on freedom of expression, which have long targeted political dissent, expanded to cover other realms as well. There was a rise in blasphemy cases, for example, directed increasingly against Coptic Christians, including children. Three schoolchildren were given five-year sentences after imitating an Islamic prayer and a beheading in a 30-second video that mocked the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Another child was placed in a juvenile facility, while the teacher who had filmed the video received a three-year jail sentence. This was part of a wider trend of prosecution of artists and intellectuals: one author was sentenced to two years in prison for ‘violating public modesty’, and a popular cartoonist was detained for 24 hours, accused of running an ‘unlicensed’ website.
Another case that received widespread attention was the sentencing of a four-year-old child to life imprisonment, part of a murder case that involves 116 defendants. The error triggered outrage, as it suggested that the judge did not review the case carefully. The highly politicised courts have continued hastily to hand out death penalties, and another seven people were sentenced to death for killing three armed cadets.
European Union officials in late February reported a recent rise in migrant smuggling from Egypt to Europe. There are concerns that militants may also use the route, which starts in Sinai, to reach Greece or Italy.
The number of civilians killed in attacks in North Sinai rose significantly this quarter, mostly as a result of the attack on the Russian plane in late October, which killed 224 people. Other attacks perpetrated by armed groups were either aimed at alleged collaborators or were stray shells aimed at other targets. A mortar shell killed three children in Sheikh Zuwaid, and another killed a family of five in Rafah. The home in Rafah was near a security checkpoint, which may have been the target of the attack. However, the attack also coincided with renewed airstrikes against militant positions in Rafah, leading to speculation that the military was responsible.
Security forces faced criticism for their involvement in obscure deaths in the border area in Sinai. In one incident, security forces shot dead a group of 15 Sudanese citizens in mid-November. The incident took place around 17km south of Rafah, where they were reportedly trying to enter Israel as asylum seekers. Egyptian policemen are thought to have perpetrated the attack, with one source saying the Sudanese citizens ignored several warnings not to cross the border fence. Another source argued that they were caught in crossfire during clashes between the police and smugglers in the area. Another six Sudanese migrants were shot dead less than ten days later. Highlighting the plight of its citizens in Egypt, the Sudanese embassy reported on 26 November that another 16 of its nationals were unlawfully detained in the past month and a half.
In December, security forces killed 14 people who were trapped inside a tunnel as they flooded 20 new underground passages along the border with the Gaza Strip. Later in the month, the Egyptian army shot dead a Palestinian man who suffered from mental illness and reportedly tried to cross over to Egyptian territory. A video of the incident was widely circulated.
Meanwhile, the army released more than 100 people from Sinai who had been detained in multiple security campaigns after courts ‘proved’ their innocence in terrorist attacks. However, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi signed another decree in late October extending the three-month state of emergency in North Sinai for the fourth time since it was put in place exactly one year ago. The state of emergency enables the army to continue with practices such as unlawful detention.
There was increasing attention to other unlawful practices such as forced disappearances. An Egyptian advocacy group called Stop Forced Disappearances documented at least 215 cases in August and September alone. Of the 215, only 63 were resolved.
Restrictions on freedom of expression continued to affect dissenters, such as a lawyer who ‘mocked’ the Egyptian president in a cartoon. Another case – of a groom who was arrested on his wedding day in Alexandria – garnered widespread attention and triggered outrage. There was also a noticeable rise in crackdowns against prominent journalists and activists. A well-known researcher and journalist, Ismail Iskandarani, was detained in late November on accusations of spreading false news and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. His detention was thought to be linked to articles he wrote on the insurgency in Sinai. Another notable journalist, Ahmed Abou Deraa, was detained while covering the elections in al-Arish, while two other journalists were barred from discussing the elections.
Leading journalist and human-rights activist Hossam Bahgat was detained and questioned. He was asked about a report on the secret trial of 26 military officers who were convicted of attempting to overthrow Sisi. Bahgat was released shortly afterwards, but his arrest sparked outrage among international- and domestic-rights groups. Police forces subsequently stormed the office of the Mada Foundation for Media Development, an organisation that trains and assists journalists, and detained all the staff members, later releasing the women and keeping some 20 men in detention.
Activists and rights groups also criticised the trial of photojournalist Mohammed Abu Zeid (also known as Shawkan), who has been imprisoned for over 800 days for his coverage of the Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre in August 2013. Shawkan is accused of murder and staging an armed protest, along with 738 others, who are thought to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. On 10 December, their trial was postponed after all the defendants were unable to fit inside the cage in the courtroom.
Nearly 30 people were sentenced to death in the period between July and September, many of whom were linked to takfiri activity or violent attacks carried out in 2013. However, there was a substantial number of acquittals – more than 524 people were acquitted in July, another 27 in August and 100 in September. Amongst those acquitted in September were two al-Jazeera journalists who had been sentenced to three years in prison over accusations of disseminating false information. The acquittals also included notable activists, such as Sanaa Seif and Yara Sallam.
Tens of thousands of political prisoners are still imprisoned or detained. More than 119 people, all thought to be linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, were detained in one week in late July. In fact, human rights groups suggested that Egypt has a policy of ‘enforced disappearances’ in plac, which can amount to a crime against humanity. At least 66 of 164 people who ‘forcefully disappeared’ last quarter are still missing.
Rights groups also reported over 100 cases of ‘death by neglect’ in Egyptian prisons over the past two years. Egyptian prisons are notorious for their appalling conditions, however the neglect of certain prisoners, particularly Islamists or those who are arrested on charges of terrorism, suggests that this may be a deliberate policy. Similarly, a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood was reportedly killed extra-judicially while in custody. Three days after he was detained at his home in Cairo, his family was contacted by the morgue, which said he died of gunshot wounds. The government, however, alleged that he committed suicide.
Furthermore, civilians continued to face trials in military courts. This is expected to continue to increase in light of a new law passed by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, which gave the army sweeping powers in ‘terrorism’ cases. Around 300 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were sent to military courts between July and September.
In North Sinai, at least 25 people were killed in attacks by armed groups, most of which were erratic incidents of shelling that targeted military positions. This includes some 12 civilians who were killed in a wedding in central Sinai, although the motive of the attack was not clear. Many more civilians were killed by the army in North Sinai, but there are no exact figures as they are not officially acknowledged. Local sources, however, alleged that dozens were killed in airstrikes by the army during the first week of July. The air force continued to attack Sheikh Zuweid after Sinai Province’s incursion on 1 July, even after the militants retreated.
Finally, the buffer zone in Rafah, North Sinai, continued to expand. The governor of North Sinai province reported on 11 August that an additional 1,215 homes were to be evacuated. Human Rights Watch estimated on 22 September that more than 3,255 homes and civilian buildings have so far been destroyed. The buffer zone was complemented by a new project to build 18 military-operated fish farms along the 14km border with the Gaza Strip. The army has also started flooding the tunnels in Rafah to make way for this project, which will make attempts at cross-border smuggling increasingly difficult.
April – June
Attacks by armed groups against civilians in North Sinai increased, though some were ‘errant’. Militants shelled at least three homes in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwaid in North Sinai and killed 14 civilians, including nine people when a mortar struck their home on 8 April. A bomb on the al-Arish–Sheikh Zuwaid road targeted a truck transporting a group of engineers, reportedly mistaking them for soldiers, and killed three people.
Armed groups in North Sinai also continued to abduct civilians and carry out extra-judicial executions. Sinai Province, which is affiliated to ISIS, said that it was responsible for killing a conscript and a civilian on 11 April, who had previously been taken hostage. The group also released a video on 8 June of its operatives killing an alleged collaborator.
The government’s own executions and politicised legal system faced heavy criticism as well. Human Rights Watch said that a court that sentenced 14 people to death and 37 to life in prison on 12 April had relied exclusively on one person’s testimony. The execution of six men on 17 May was also controversial. The defendants were accused of belonging to Sinai Province and killing two officers, but human-rights groups said that the case, known as the ‘Arab Sharkas case’, was flawed. The defendants were tried in a military court, meaning that details of the case were far from transparent. The defendants were allegedly already in custody during the time that the attack was supposed to have taken place. They were also reportedly tortured prior to making ‘confessions’. Suspects thought to have links to armed groups are often held in unofficial military prisons, where torture and abuse are widespread.
Human-rights groups say there are around 41,000 political prisoners in Egypt. On 29 June, Amnesty International released a report titled ‘Generation Jail’, which documents the arbitrary detention and arrest of youth demonstrators and activists in Egypt. Those detained include youth activists, members of human-rights groups and actual or perceived supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Amnesty International also accused the government in early May of using the courts as a way to control or limit critical journalism. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 18 journalists are currently held in jail in Egypt, which is an all-time high.
Nevertheless, there were some cases of leniency. On 17 June the government pardoned 165 people who had been detained for violating the protest law or other small-scale violations. On 9 June 122 people, who had been detained on charges of rioting and demonstrating, were released because there was insufficient evidence to proceed with their cases. On 23 May a court acquitted 17 people of violating the protest law during commemorations of the 25 January uprising.
In January, the military demolished 270 homes in Rafah, North Sinai to make way for the buffer zone on the border with the Gaza Strip. Residents were given marginal compensation: 700–1,200 Egyptian pounds (US$94-162), which is reportedly equivalent to three months’ rent. This was followed by a second phase of demolition, which resulted in the evacuation of 1,220 homes housing 2,044 families. In March, officials announced that another 200 homes in Rafah were due to be demolished. There will be four phases in total, according to the Egyptian government. The demolitions have been strongly criticised by international and local rights organisations.
Civilians in North Sinai were caught in cross-fire amidst frequent battles between armed groups and security forces. Two children died after sustaining wounds in an outbreak of fighting in Sheikh Zuwaid on 30 January, and on 1 February one woman was killed during clashes in Rafah. On 2 February, an RPG aimed at a security checkpoint struck a home in Rafah and killed two women. Additionally, only a few days after the night-time curfew in North Sinai was extended by three months, a civilian was shot and injured in al-Arish for violating the restrictions. Residents called on the government to lift the curfew, which they say is exacerbating an economic crisis in the region.
According to the Egyptian Observatory of Rights and Freedoms, 194 people received death sentences in the first quarter of 2015, following hundreds of others who have been sentenced to death in trials that many say are politically motivated. Furthermore, on 2 February, a death sentence previously handed down to 183 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood was upheld. They were convicted of killing 16 police officers in August 2013. Although the majority of the sentences were subsequently commuted, a Muslim Brotherhood member was executed on 7 March on charges of murder, marking the first execution of the one of the hundreds of prisoners sentenced since the military coup in 2013. Mahmoud Ramadan was convicted of throwing a teenager off a roof during the post-Morsi unrest.
Since Sisi passed a controversial decree in October 2014 placing all public infrastructure under military jurisdiction, hundreds of civilians have been tried in military courts, including a nine-year-old who is accused of attacking public facilities. Sisi issued another decree on 24 March against groups posing a ‘threat to national security’, including any group that disrupts public transport, which is a common occurrence during protests. Demonstrators—Islamists and liberals alike—continued to face stringent crackdowns. Leading activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was jailed for five years on 23 February on charges of violating the protest law. He was previously sentenced to 15 years in jail for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration in 2013. Three other liberal activists were given three-year sentences for violating the protest law.
After facing widespread criticism for the imprisonment of three Al Jazeera English journalists, Egypt released Australian Peter Greste on 1 February. Greste spent 400 days in a jail in Cairo. The two remaining journalists were released on bail ten days later and were scheduled to appear in court for a retrial. The retrial was adjourned on 25 March to 22 April.
More than 20 civilians were killed during this quarter by armed groups. Many were killed accidentally during failed attempts to target security forces nearby. This included seven people from one family south of Rafah whose home was hit by a mortar shell on 19 November, as well as a 13-year-old who was killed by a roadside bomb on 5 October.
Other civilian deaths were unexplained and were thought to be related to suspected involvement with security forces. For example, three young members of tribes were shot in the head and killed on 12 October. Similarly, four civilians were shot dead on a highway south of al-Arish in North Sinai on 6 November, while another two were shot dead in separate incidents in Sheikh Zuwaid and al-Arish on 30 November.
The military’s actions during its counter-terrorism operations in North Sinai have suggested a disregard for residents’ human rights. The buffer zone near the city of Rafah was particularly controversial, because the first phase of its construction led to the demolition of 837 homes and the evacuation of hundreds of residents. Condemning this as an ‘unlawful eviction’, Amnesty International reminded Egypt on 27 November that a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza strip will not address the causes of militancy in the region and therefore will not resolve the underlying issue. Egyptian security sources announced on 17 November that the 500m buffer zone will be expanded by one kilometre after 800–1,000m tunnels were discovered beneath the border. Concerns heightened further when the governor of North Sinai said on 29 December that the buffer zone will be widened to 5km. He concurrently suggested that the entire city of Rafah will be wiped out and replaced with a ‘new Rafah city’.
Counter-terrorism operations in North Sinai have also been criticised for failing to incorporate socioeconomic development for marginalised civilians in one of Egypt’s poorest regions. Rather, the operations have worsened living conditions through the imposition of an 11-hour curfew and regular disruption of communications, including mobile phone networks and Internet access.
The military was given additional powers when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi introduced a two-year decree enabling it to assist the police with guarding public facilities throughout the country. The law also stated that people who attack government facilities will be referred to military prosecutors and tried in military courts. Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the law as an ‘unprecedented extension of military court authority’, while pointing to the referral of 820 civilians to military courts during the six weeks to mid-December.
The use of military courts was described by Egyptian rights groups as part of a growing crackdown on dissent. An annual report published by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) pointed to arbitrary arrests, disappearances, torture, unfair trials in military court and ‘systematic violations of basic rights and freedoms’. Reporters without Borders (RSF) added that 46 journalists were arrested in Egypt in 2014 alone, and 16 of them are currently imprisoned.
The government also imposed a deadline for civil society groups to register with the government under the 2002 Law on Associations and Foundations. The law gives the government control over the groups’ finances, particularly fundraising from international sources, which in turn can curtail their activities.
Egypt’s dismal human-rights situation appeared to worsen, rather than improve, under the new government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood deepened, with the banned organisation’s previously legal political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, also dissolved by court order in August.
While several leading members of the group were handed life sentences for incidents during demonstrations against the removal of President Muhammad Morsi in 2013, hundreds more people affiliated to the Brotherhood were arrested or had their businesses closed. Sixty-six companies belonging to prominent Muslim Brotherhood members Khairat al-Shater and Hassan Malik were seized in July, including Zad markets, Istikbal furniture stores and Malek Trade and Clothes.
An Amnesty International report that same month warned of ‘a surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and harrowing incidents of torture and deaths in police custody’ in the year since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted.
More than 80 people are estimated to have died in detention during that period, and activists of all stripes – from the Muslim Brotherhood to secular opposition movements such as April 6 – continued to call for all political prisoners to be released.
Activists also want to see the revocation of Egypt’s controversial protest law, which insists on a permit for any congregation of more 10 people. In September, protests were completely outlawed on several university campuses, including Cairo University and the University of al-Azhar, which is also in the capital city. The interior ministry deployed security forces to several universities in what it described as a move to prevent violence and maintain security.
In a rare moment of leniency, blogger and veteran activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was released on bail on 15 September, while he awaited a retrial for a 15-year jail sentence for violating the ban on unsanctioned protests. Fattah, who had embarked on a well-publicised hunger strike joined by dozens of others in solidarity, was released alongside two other prisoners. On 16 September, the justice ministry said it was drafting amendments to the protest law.
Those was no leniency for three jailed Al-Jazeera journalists – Australian Peter Greste and Egyptians Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – although US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had led international calls for President Sisi to grant them clemency when he took office. Sisi said instead he would ‘not interfere in judicial rulings’. Indeed, after it was accused of being pro-Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Jazeera was banned in Egypt, as was the Muslim Brotherhood’s Rabaa channel.
In early August, 36 books ‘linked’ to the Muslim Brotherhood were burned at a public library in Hurghada.
After a Human Rights Watch report published in August accused the Egyptian military of systematically massacring 817 demonstrators a year ago at sit-ins in Rabaa and an-Nahda, two top HRW employees were stopped at Cairo airport and denied entry to Egypt.
At least one more person was killed and 24 injured when police broke up further protests this quarter.
Militants inspired by Islamic State (ISIS) added to the grim picture by adopting some of the group’s most brutal tactics. At least five civilians were ritually beheaded by Sinai-based jihadists, after being accused of cooperating with Egyptian or Israeli forces. Another two were shot to death on the same alleged grounds. Five or more civilians were kidnapped, while at least 15 others were caught in crossfire, among them at least seven children.
A judge at another mass trial in late April recommended the death penalty for 683 people, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Badie. Although the judge commuted hundreds of earlier death sentences to life imprisonment, and only 183 of his recommended death sentences were later upheld, the country’s judiciary was still under fire for what its critics called politically motivated sentencing.
The decision in June to hand down seven- and ten-year jail sentences to three journalists working for Al-Jazeera English – Australian Peter Greste and Egyptians Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – increased accusations that the military-installed government was using the country’s courts as a means of repression.
The first executions in Egypt for three years were also carried out in June. ‘The death penalty is being ruthlessly deployed as a tool to eliminate political opponents,’ warned a regional Amnesty International official.
At the same time as recommending 683 more people for the death penalty in April, the judge in the case commuted 492 of 529 death sentences handed down in March to life imprisonment. The case was then referred to Egypt’s Grand Mufti, who must be consulted before the death penalty can be formally imposed. After consulting the mufti, a criminal court in Minya, upheld 183 of the 683 death sentences in the case in June. Badie was among those still facing execution. The accused, as in the March mass trial, faced charges relating to the death of an officer during the storming of a police station in Minya during pro-Morsi protests in 2013.
Charged with spreading false news after they interviewed Muslim Brotherhood members, Al-Jazeera English journalists Greste and Fahmy were jailed for seven years; Mohamed was handed an extra three years for an additional charge of possessing ammunition’. Since assuming power in 2013, the military installed government has arrested dozens of Egyptian and international journalists. Although most of those have been released, at least two others remain in detention, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At the trial of Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed, two other Al-Jazeera journalists were sentenced to long jail terms in absentia.
A controversial protest law passed at the end of 2013, which requires prior police approval for demonstrations, has also been used against youth and other activists. Twenty-five people associated with the 25 January revolution were jailed in June for breaking the new law, including Alaa Abdel Fattah, a veteran of the April 6 Youth Movement. They were sentenced to 15 years for organising an illegal protest, assaulting police officers and vandalism. While there are no official statistics for the number of political prisoners who are currently arrested in Egypt, activists say it is more than 16,000, and possibly even more than 20,000, people.
In a media crackdown, Egypt’s top satirist, Bassem Youssef, was pulled off the air on 2 June.
The same day, Egypt’s interior ministry asked foreign firms to help the government monitor social media in order to track down ‘terrorists’ and prevent criminal activity (defined widely as insulting the state, the military or Islam).
In the Sinai Peninsula, the army was accused by the Egyptian Observatory of Rights and Freedom of violating civilians’ human rights, as it pursued Islamists. A report issued by the observatory accused it of murder, arrest, torture and displacement of Sinai residents. The report also highlighted conditions in the notorious Azula military prison where prisoners are frequently held without fair trial.
Local sources also say the military has continued to demolish homes of civilians, though the military accused them of harbouring militants. These conflicting reports cannot be independently adjudicated, because of a military-imposed media blackout in North Sinai. Civilians in the Sinai Peninsula also faced violence at the hands of militants. A pro-government sheikh, for example, was killed on 15 May, while two Christians were abducted on separate occasions.
In a ruling prompting widespread domestic and international condemnation, the criminal court in Minya sentenced 529 members of ousted president Muhammad Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party to death on 24 March. The defendants were convicted of the murder of one police officer, the attempted murder of two others and an attack on a police station in Minya. The largest capital punishment case on record in Egypt, it underlined the military government’s efforts to silence any form of opposition.
Other mass sentences and arrests included the detention of 444 Muslim Brotherhood members during the constitutional referendum in mid-January. Nearly 200, including the group’s spiritual leader Mohammed Badie, went on trial in February over violence during pro-Morsi sit-ins in Port Said last August. Another 500 Morsi supporters were sent to trial at the Cairo Criminal Court for alleged involvement in clashes in Ramses Square and the Al-Fath Mosque that August.
Three misdemeanour courts in the port city of Alexandria sentenced 220 Brotherhood supporters to up to seven years in prison on various charges. The same judge in Minya who passed the mass death sentence for 529 defendants said he would hand down a verdict in another case against Badie and 628 other senior Muslim Brotherhood officials in April.
Criticism of these decisions came not only from local lawyers and rights organisations, but also from US Secretary of State John Kerry and from Amnesty International, which talked of human-rights violations on an ‘unprecedented scale’ since the ouster of Morsi in July 2013. Early in the year, Muslim Brotherhood lawyers petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged crimes against humanity by the military government.
Three members of the Strong Egypt party were jailed for three years for distributing flyers for the ‘no’ campaign on the new constitution, and there were complaints of minor voting irregularities during the referendum. Ahead of the presidential election, a controversial new law made it impossible to challenge the electoral commission’s decisions.
A media blackout has been in place in the strife-torn Sinai since military operations began there last year against extremists taking refuge in the peninsula in the wake of Morsi’s ouster. Mobile phone and other communications networks no longer work between the hours of 6am and 7pm, hindering many aspects of daily and business life. The governor of North Sinai has consistently stressed that the inconvenience is for the sake of national security.
In mid-March, members of the UN Human Rights Council called on both Egypt and Sudan to investigate and prosecute those responsible for kidnapping, torturing and killing refugees in the Sinai Peninsula. The council called on both countries to identify and prosecute any security officials who may have conspired with traffickers. A Human Rights Watch report published in February included 29 incidents in which victims claimed that Sudanese and Egyptian security officers were complicit in trafficking and other abuses.
January – September
Human security in the Sinai Peninsula is threatened by militant attacks that target armed forces and civilians, as well as military reprisals against such attacks that tend to lead to a high number of casualties and physical damages. The situation remains tense for civilians, who fear leaving their houses and are often subjected to kidnappings and targeted killings often as a bargaining tool.
The military raids on northern Sinai led to widespread fear prompting many civilians to flee. An estimated 13 civilians were killed in crossfire and many others were wounded, with a number of reports showing that civilians are being indiscriminately targeted. Various local reports indicate a growing number of attacks on bystanders, forced evictions and widespread destruction of property such as houses and mosques. There are growing fears that the military operation is not merely targeting armed and violent factions but is a form of collective punishment imposed on the residents of northern Sinai. Throughout the three-day raid that started on 14 September, the army took control of the central telecommunications building in Arish and subsequently cut all landlines, mobile phones and internet communications from the governorate of North Sinai for almost 10 hours. Furthermore, the military’s plans to create a buffer zone along the Gaza Strip have led to demolitions of houses and schools, leading to displacement.
The Sinai Peninsula is closed off to journalists as well as humanitarian workers, meaning the Egyptian military apparatus has a monopoly on the provision of information to the public. Much of the information about the Sinai Peninsula is therefore dominated by Egyptian military propaganda and cannot be independently verified. One example of such restrictions on journalism is the case of Ahmed Abu Deraa, a prominent Sinai journalist detained by the military for contradicting the official account of the most recent Sinai campaign and reporting about collateral damage to civilians. Two additional journalists were detained in connection to reporting on Sinai. Reporters Sans Frontieres says the military continues to censor and arrest those who do not comply with a glorification of its image. Media monopolisation implies poor accountability regarding any human-rights abuses committed by the military throughout its campaign. This includes unconfirmed reports of a high number of civilian casualties as collateral damage, as well as a practise of arbitrarily targeting and detaining foreigners, specifically Palestinians and Syrian refugees.
The economic situation in the Sinai has remained poor, with few opportunities to local Bedouins aside from tourism, leading many to resort to crime. The military campaign has only further aggravated the situation, damaging shops, paralysing and creating a severe deficit in daily supplies.
A UNHCR report published in April revealed that many refugees, most of which are Eritrean, are captured and held hostage by criminal gangs in the Sinai Peninsula. The gangs tend to demand a ransom for the release of the refugees to use them as leverage for the release of their incarcerated relatives, but many are trafficked, tortured or killed. The situation is described by UNHCR as one of the most ‘un-reported humanitarian crises in the world’.
October – December
Human security in the Sinai Peninsula was jeopardised the activities of militant groups, as well as repercussions from military campaigns on residents. The number of civilians killed in Sinai is three, according to military sources, but rights groups have argued that testimony from residents indicates that the number is actually much higher. The state continued to monopolise all news related to the conflict, thereby preventing the number of civilian casualties from being independently established.
The lives of residents of Rafah, Sheikh Zuwaid and al-Arish have been severely affected by the insurgency. Schools and workplaces were closed for extended periods at a time due to security reasons. Many residents have also lost their lives after having been caught in cross-fire between the army and the militants. According to IRIN, residents were targeted by militants for refusing to allow them to place improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in front of their, houses or for indicating support for Defence Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The military tried a number of civilians and journalists in military courts, with little transparency and public awareness regarding their trials. Security forces have also engaged in arbitrary detentions, arresting civilians who do not possess identification documents. A Sinai-based journalist for al-Masry al-Youm, Ahmed Abu Deraa, who was detained and tried in a military court, received a six months suspended prison sentence on 5 October, while a Hamas-affiliated television reporter was detained. Arbitrary detentions were even more prevalent among Palestinians, who are viewed by the military as pro-Hamas and therefore an inherent threat to national security. Syrian refugees were also targeted and were depicted in the media as being pro-Muslim Brotherhood, which has been used as a justification for their deportation and detention.
Meanwhile, a poll by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation has named Egypt the worst country among Arab League member states in which to be a woman. The poll combined a number of categories to assess women’s status: their political representation, the cultural limitations against their participation in society, their economic contributions, their rights in the realm of marriage and divorce, their access to medical assistance in healthcare and child-bearing, as well as the levels of sexual assault and physical violence they suffered.