Systematic Use of Torture in Egypt, Once Again in the Focus of the UN

By Alejandra Vicente, Head of Law at REDRESS 

Twitter @AVicente_Carr 

In March, experts from the UN Human Rights Committee examined the human rights situation in six State parties, including Egypt, and issued its findings on how they are implementing the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the multilateral treaty that commits nations to respect the civil and political rights of individuals. 

Not surprisingly, given the deterioration of the human rights situation in Egypt, the Committee expressed its concern about the long list of human rights violations being committed against political opponents, human rights defenders, journalists and other peaceful dissenters.  

Egypt has a long history of using torture to suppress dissent. During his 30-year authoritarian regime, former President Mubarak normalized the use of arbitrary arrests, torture and other grave violations under the guise of fighting terrorism. The State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) shut down rights groups, quashed political opponents, limited the rights of journalists, academics and others, and prevented the registration of religious and political parties.  

Since the 2013 military coup, the government led by Abedel Fattah el-Sisi has kept a tight grip on any individual that dares to criticise the government or express dissent. The SSIS was replaced by the National Security Agency (NSA) as the new tool to arrest, torture, and in some cases, kill human rights defenders, activists and political opponents. In the last few years, there has been a dramatic spike in the restriction of freedoms and the targeting of activists and defenders.   

Given this context, the Committee showed concerned on the systematic and widespread use of torture and ill-treatment; the systematic use of pre-trial detention; the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty; the lack of due process in legal proceedings, including mass trials and military trials; enforced disappearances; and the use of counter-terrorism measures to suppress dissent. 

The Committee’s concluding observations shed light once more on how endemic torture is in Egypt, noting that torture and ill-treatment are widely used during the arrest and interrogation of individuals, particularly by the police and State Security Services.  

The Committee noted the widespread use of incommunicado detention under anti-terrorism laws, which presents a significant systemic risk of short-term enforced disappearance, and creates the conditions under which torture can thrive. Under the Terrorist Entities Law, Egyptian authorities have placed thousands of individuals on their “terrorists list” without court hearings or any form of due process, and subjected them to lengthy travel bans, asset freezes and, in the case of public sector employees, automatic dismissals. 

The Committee also highlighted other contexts in which torture and ill-treatment take place, such as the harsh conditions political detainees are subjected to, including the deliberate denial of healthcare, which in some cases has resulted in deaths, the denial of visits by family and legal counsel, and the extended periods of solitary confinement. 

The rampant impunity with which torture is committed was fully noted by the Committee. In the Committee’s view, this situation has allowed torture to flourish and become systematic. The Committee expressed its concern about the heightened reprisals against those who denounce torture, the lack of investigations of claims of torture, as well as the lack of reparations for victims. Complicit in this are a judicial system and public prosecution that look the other way by continuing to use evidence obtained under torture or by failing to investigate complaints of torture.  

The Committee urged Egypt to take a number of measures to address the systematic use of torture, including ensuring the independent and effective investigation and prosecution of cases of torture and enforced disappearance; halting the misuse of counter-terrorism measures against peaceful dissenters; and ensuring that human rights defenders can operate safely without fear of being persecuted, intimidated or detained. 

In addition, it urged Egypt to respect fundamental procedural safeguards against arbitrary deprivation of liberty, comply with pretrial detention limits and adopt alternative measures to pretrial detention. It requested Egypt to review its existing legal framework to ensure that the death penalty is never imposed in violation of fair trial guarantees and give due consideration to abolishing capital punishment. 

This is not the first time that human rights violations in Egypt come into focus at the UN, particularly the pervasive use of torture by the Egyptian authorities. The country has been subject to two inquiries by the Committee Against Torture – in 1996 and 2017 respectively -, which led the Committee to conclude that torture in Egypt is practised systematically. Two years ago, 32 states delivered a joint statement on Egypt at the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights crisis in the country. Since that time, the situation of human rights defenders and activists has further deteriorated.  

As the brutal crackdown on civil society continues to intensify in Egypt, a more coordinated and robust response by the international community is needed. Torture must end in Egypt, and it must end now. Those who perpetrate it, condone it or cover it up need to be held accountable. The Egyptian government needs to urgently act to end the practice, hold those responsible to account and repair the harm to victims. In the absence of this, the international community must stand by the thousands of political detainees in the country and take strong measures to bring all those responsible for torture and other gross violations to justice.

Photo by Jonathan Rashad (CC BY 3.0)