STATEMENT
Human rights activist Amal Fathy’s arrest comes amid wider crackdown in Egypt

Accusations of “inciting hatred against the state” and “using social media to spread fake news” are being used to silence government critics.

23 May 2018
BY INDEX ON CENSORSHIP
Activist Amal Fathy has been ordered detained. (Photo: Facebook)
Activist Amal Fathy has been ordered detained. (Photo: Facebook)

Prosecutors have ordered Egyptian activist Amal Fathy to remain in detention for 15 days on charges of “inciting against the state,  using social media to spread fake news and defaming Egypt.”

On 11 May the 33 year-old pro-democracy online activist was arrested alongside her husband Mohamed Lotfy, founder and executive director of the 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award- winning Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an Egyptian rights watchdog, in a pre-dawn raid on the couple’s home.

The arrests came two days after Fathy, a third-year Mass Communication student at Cairo University and a former actress and model,  posted a video lambasting the government for its failure to end sexual harassment, which remains widespread despite a 2014 law  that criminalises the behaviour.  In the 11-minute clip posted on her Facebook page, Fathy also criticised Egyptian authorities for “the deteriorating socio-economic conditions and public services in the country”.    

While her husband was released after three hours, Fathy was ordered held and remains in custody pending investigations by State Security Prosecutors in case no. 261 of 2018 in which several other young pro-reform activists face a host of accusations including “joining an outlawed group to disrupt state institutions, spread fake news and undermine trust in the Egyptian state.”  

The crackdown continues to gather pace. This morning, 23 May 2018, human rights activist and blogger Wael Abbas was arrested at dawn from his home in Cairo, according to a post he made on Facebook.

Shadi Ghazali Harb,  a prominent leader of the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak,  is another government critic that has been arrested in the case. He was summoned by prosecutors on 15 May for investigation on charges of insulting president Abdel Fattah El Sisi and spreading false news in relation to tweets he had posted criticising the government over recent increases in metro fares.

“At a time when people don’t know how they’ll cope with the next wave of price hikes that started with the metro fares, Sisi is inspecting the new administrative capital and is racing against time to build a wall to isolate himself and his cronies from the people. Can he actually finish it before the next eruption of mass protests?” Harb tweeted on 11 May.  

Days earlier, comedian Shady Abu Zaid, who produces an online satirical show called The Rich Content, was arrested at his home and was forcibly disappeared for 24 hours before resurfacing at State Security Headquarters.  Abu Zaid has a large following on social media networks since posting a prank-video two years ago that showed him distributing condom-balloons among security forces in Tahrir Square on the anniversary of the January 25 uprising.  He too faces charges of joining an outlawed group and disseminating fake news, according to his lawyer Azza Soliman. Analysts say the incarceration of the young activists “signals a new wave of repression targeting Egypt’s youth revolutionaries with the aim of intimidating and silencing dissenters.”

Fathy’s video drew mixed reactions in Egypt meanwhile, with security sources and pro-government media accusing her of “insulting Egypt” and “inciting against the state”. State-run media outlets which have slipped back into their old habit of serving as government propaganda mouthpieces, identified her as a member of the April 6 Movement,  the youth group that mobilised protesters ahead of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak. The group has been persistently vilified by the pro-government media with several TV talk show hosts branding its members as “traitors” and “foreign agents” after the movement was outlawed by court order in April 2014.  

Egyptian and international rights groups however, have denounced Fathy’s  detention with Amnesty International calling the move  “a new low in Egypt’s crackdown on freedom of expression.” Nine Egyptian rights groups have signed an online petition published by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies on 14 May, describing Fathy’s detention as “state retribution for exercising her right to free speech” and calling for the activist’s immediate release.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms which signed the petition, said it was the actual target of Fathy’s arrest as the organisation has “continuously suffered persecution at the hands of Egyptian security agencies,” and its management has “frequently been the target of state harassment,” ECRF said in a statement published on its Facebook page on 12 May,  a day after Fathy’s arrest.

The ECRF’s Giza office was raided by security officers in plainclothes in October 2016 ; the men searched the office without presenting a search warrant and threatened to close it down. Lotfy, who previously worked as a researcher for Amnesty International before founding the ECRF, was banned from travelling in June 2015  and had his passport confiscated.  The rights watchdog works on documenting cases that are particularly touchy for the government such as enforced disappearances and torture in prisons.

Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms

ECRF is one of the few human rights organisations still operating in a country which has waged an orchestrated campaign against independent civil society groups. Find out more about the 2018 Freedom of Expression Awards Campaigning Fellow.

The government’s malpractices have become so rampant under the Sisi regime that they were described in a September 2017 Human Rights Watch report as “an epidemic of abuses.” The in-depth report sparked government outrage after it alleged that President Sisi had given national security officers the green light to use to use torture with impunity—a charge that has been vehemently denied by Egyptian government officials. Basing its findings on research by Egyptian rights groups including documentation of rights violations in Egyptian prisons by ECRF lawyers, the report cited such techniques as an “assembly line” of beatings, electric shocks, stress positions and sometimes rape by security forces that HRW said “could amount to crimes against humanity.” In a similar damning report published by the ECRF some months earlier, the organisation claimed it had received 830 complaints in 2016 with torture being practised to force suspects to confess or divulge information. It also said it had documented nearly 400 cases of enforced disappearances  between August 2016 and the same month in 2017.

The fact that ECRF’s  lawyers are also acting as legal consultants for Guilio Regeni’s family has only served to further provoke the ire of the Egyptian authorities. The case of the slain Italian researcher who went missing in Cairo before his badly-mutilated corpse was found in a ditch on the outskirts of Cairo in February 2015 has embarrassed the  government in Cairo, causing a rift between Egypt and Italy and prompting the latter to recall its ambassador. This, after investigations revealed that the Cambridge post-graguate student who had been researching the country’s independent trade unions—a topic of great sensitivity for the government—had been tortured before his death.

Rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally, who was helping investigate Regeni’s murder and had been monitoring enforced disappearances , has been held  behind bars since September 2017 in reportedly “appalling conditions” after he himself was forcibly disappeared for three days.

Since 2014, Egyptian human rights defenders have borne the brunt of a brutal government crackdown on peaceful dissent. Their suffering has been made all the worse by the passing of a 2017 NGO law, slammed as “draconian” and “restrictive” by international rights groups. Dozens of rights groups face prosecution in the so-called “NGO foreign funding case,” reopened by the authorities in March 2016, on charges of “receiving foreign funding to sow chaos.” Several rights organisations have had their assets frozen and have had travel bans imposed on their directors and staffers. ECRF is no exception. One of the last few remaining independent rights organizations still operating in the country –despite the restrictive environment — the ECRF was the recipient of the 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Campaigning Award. Despite the recognition, its staffers remain under threat.  The organisation sees Fathy’s arrest as setting a new “precedent in the practices used by security agencies to hamper the work of human rights organizations.”

It also perceives Fathy’s prosecution as “a warning message” ahead of a planned visit to Cairo next week by Italian prosecutors to review video footage captured by security cameras in the metro station where Regeni disappeared on January 25, 2016.

“It is shameful that this is how the security authorities choose to deal with ECRF one week before the Italian technical visit to Egypt ,” ECRF wrote in the 12 May statement posted on its Facebook page.

24/5/2018: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a September 2019 Human Rights Watch report. The report dates from September 2017.

Fellowship Update: An important element of Index’s work

The Index Awards Fellowship has become an important element of Index on Censorship’s work

Egypt: “People are being hunted because of what they say on social media”

Ahmad Abdallah from the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms and winner of a 2018 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award, talks about increased violations against free speech in the country

Doughty Street Chambers: Egypt’s arbitrary detention of Amal Fathy clear violation of her rights

Leading human rights lawyers from Doughty Street Chambers have submitted a new complaint to the United Nations regarding Egypt’s treatment of Amal Fathy, the detained wife of a co-founder of the award-winning human rights group the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF).

Egyptian activist Amal Fathy’s pre-trial detention extended by 15 days

Fathy has been in pre-trial detention since her arrested after publishing a video criticising sexual harassment in Egypt, during which time she has shown symptoms of acute stress and has been unable to walk unassisted

Comments are closed.