Jailed Egyptian human rights defenders in the COVID-19 firing line

COVID19 Newsletter, Egypt

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Many of us are under lockdown to minimise the risk of contracting COVID-19. This is not the case for human rights defenders in pre-trial detention in Egypt. The authorities’ refusal to release them from imprisonment in unsanitary conditions is indicative of their exploitation of the pandemic in an attempt to eliminate their critics.

Egyptian prisons are overcrowded, unhygienic, and frequently lack safe drinking water and adequate healthcare, transforming them into hotbeds for a contagious disease. Detainees are often deprived of access to sunlight, exercise and sufficient ventilation, which significantly impacts their health. Since the onset of the crisis, the authorities have cut off communication between prisoners and the outside, rendering it more difficult for relatives to bring detainees necessities, such as soap. Meanwhile, prison staff entering and exiting prisons facilitate the spread of viruses to both detainees and the Egyptian community at large.

The regime routinely exploits pre-trial detention – theoretically reserved for exceptional cases – as a tool to punish human rights defenders for their legitimate rights work. They are often detained for two years or more on trumped-up, national security-related charges such as “spreading false news” and “engaging with a terrorist group.” This punishment has now been intensified by the risk of COVID-19 reaching prison populations.

The authorities released 15 activists in March amid pressure from rights groups, yet this is a negligible number compared to the thousands still behind bars. Worse, arrests of human rights defenders continue, such as the incarceration of lawyer Mohsen Bahnasi, reportedly linked to his calls for the release of prisoners in light of COVID-19. Furthermore, legislation preventing the conditional release of detainees held under the Assembly and Counter-Terrorism Laws, which concern the majority of human rights defenders, was recently adopted.

Court proceedings have been suspended until at least 30 April. Many pre-trial detention renewal hearings for human rights defenders have been postponed, sometimes up to six times, to curb the pandemic, while they remain locked up and vulnerable to the virus. The crisis will likely prolong their detention, exacerbating the psychological torment of being trapped in an unjust system.

What did EuroMed Rights do?

EuroMed Rights presented recommendations to the EU, its member states and like-minded countries. Among others, we called on these countries to urge Egypt to:

  • Release all arbitrarily detained human rights defenders,immediately and unconditionally;
  • Ensure that the treatment of detainees is in line with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules);
  • Allow detainees’access to their family and lawyers, in respect of the relevant hygiene measures.

Read the full recommendations below.