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Egypt: mass round-ups ahead of COP27

At least 151 detainees currently being investigated, while hundreds more have faced arrest and threats

Detained UK-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah begins intensified hunger strike today

‘World leaders arriving in Sharm El-Sheikh for COP27 must not be fooled by Egypt’s PR campaign’ - Philip Luther

The Egyptian authorities’ arrest of hundreds of people in the past two weeks alone in connection to calls for protests during the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh is a reminder of the grim reality of Egypt’s policy of mass arbitrary detention to crush dissent, Amnesty International said today as COP27 gets underway.

At least 151 detainees are currently being investigated by the country’s Supreme State Security Prosecution, while hundreds more have faced shorter arrests and questioning. 

One of those currently in detention is Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the arbitrarily-jailed UK-Egyptian blogger and activist who has been on hunger strike for more than 200 days. His family are increasingly concerned for his fate, not least as he begins a total hunger strike (refusing even water) from today. 

In the lead-up to COP27, the Egyptian authorities released 766 prisoners following President al-Sisi’s reactivation of a Presidential Pardons Committee in April. Yet over the same period, Amnesty documented the arrest of double that number: 1,540 people who were questioned over their exercising of free speech and association.

In the past six months, Amnesty has gathered data from dozens of lawyers who regularly attend interrogations and detention renewal hearings, and has reviewed court decisions and other official documents, and interviewed former prisoners as well as relatives of detainees.

In recent weeks, the Egyptian security forces have arrested and detained hundreds of people in central Cairo and in town squares across Egyptian cities over content on their phones - a tactic often employed by police ahead of expected protests. While most were released within hours, some were taken to prosecutors, while others remain subject to enforced disappearance according to lawyers in Cairo, Alexandria, Sharqiya and Dakahliya.

In September, Abdelsalam Abdelghani, 55, was arrested at home on the outskirts of Cairo. A prosecutor questioned him about a Facebook group called “Our right”, including posts calling for protests on 11 November. Abdelghani was questioned over spreading “false news” and being “a member of a terrorist group”, and is still being held.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, said: 

“The arrest of hundreds of people merely because they were suspected of supporting the call for peaceful protests raises serious concerns over how the authorities will respond to people wishing to protest during COP27 - an essential feature of any UN climate conference. 

“The Egyptian authorities must allow peaceful demonstrators to gather freely and refrain from using unlawful force or arbitrary arrests to deter protests.

“World leaders arriving in Sharm El-Sheikh for COP27 must not be fooled by Egypt’s PR campaign.

“Away from the dazzling resort hotels, thousands of individuals - including human rights defenders, journalists, peaceful protesters and members of the political opposition - continue to be detained unjustly.

“They must urge President Abdelfattah al-Sisi to release all those arbitrarily held for exercising their human rights. As a matter of urgency, this should include imprisoned activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who today escalated his hunger strike to stop drinking water.” 

Protests heavily restricted

According to the Egyptian presidency COP27 website, anyone wishing to organise protests in Sharm El-Sheikh must inform the authorities 36 hours in advance. Protests will only be allowed between 10:00-17:00 in a camera-monitored area far from the conference site. The authorities have also limited the content of protests to climate-related issues. These measures are unnecessary and disproportionate, aimed at restricting the ability of individuals to meaningfully protest. Amnesty is calling on the authorities to ensure that the notification requirement is used only to facilitate protests and does not imply a need for authorisation, while strictly refraining from dispersing or otherwise repressing protests that fail to meet this requirement. Other arbitrary and disproportionate measures have also been taken in relation to local residents and workers in Sharm El-Sheikh, with new movement restrictions imposed.   

Prisoner releases blocked

The Egyptian security agencies also continue to use extrajudicial powers to determine which prisoners are released, and have blocked the release of thousands of prisoners arbitrarily detained solely for exercising their human rights. Former presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Aboulfotoh’s health is at risk in detention, while lawyers Hoda Abdelmoniem and Mohamed Baker remain detained simply for their work defending victims of human rights violations. The authorities have largely excluded anyone from release who is believed to be a member of - or affiliated with - the Muslim Brotherhood. 

The authorities have also continued to ignore decisions to release detainees in a practice known as rotation. Since April, Egypt’s security agencies have refused to implement judicial orders for the release of at least 60 detainees. Instead, National Security Agency officers have taken them from prison without notifying their relatives. Many were subjected to enforced disappearance for days before they were brought before prosecutors to face bogus terrorism or other national security-related charges. 

Those released face punitive restrictions

Most of those released following the reactivation of the Presidential Pardons Committee continue to face restrictions on their freedom of expression and liberty. Seven recently-released detainees told Amnesty that the National Security Agency ordered they remove critical content posted on their social media channels or face re-arrest arrest when COP27 concludes. Some who did not comply have already been re-arrested, such as Sherif al-Roubi, an activist released in June but re-arrested in September after giving a media interview on the hardships faced by former prisoners. Others who were recently released remain under police surveillance, while many are arbitrarily banned from travelling.

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