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Conviction of human rights defender Amal Fathy for social media criticism must not stand

EGYPT: The ICJ called for appropriate measures to ensure justice in the case of Amal Fathy, an Egyptian human rights defender who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment following her conviction for criticizing the Egyptian authorities’ inadequate response to rampant sexual harassment on social media.
On 30 December, Cairo’s Misdemeanor Court of Appeal will decide on Amal Fathy’s appeal against the conviction. The ICJ stresses that Fathy’s conviction and her prolonged arbitrary detention violate her rights to freedom of expression and to liberty protected under Egyptian and international law.
On 29 September 2018, the Maadi Misdemeanor Court convicted Fathy of “broadcasting false information harmful to national security;” “publishing online material that insults public decency;” and the public “use of foul language.” The charges were in reaction to her posting a video on Facebook criticizing the Egyptian authorities for failing to protect women against sexual harassment and for the poor quality of public services.
The Court sentenced Amal Fathy to two years’ imprisonment for the first two charges and fined her 10,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$558) for the latter, and set bail at 20,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$1115) pending her appeal.
Amal Fathy is said to be suffering from acute stress and depression as a result of her detention.
“Amal Fathy was charged and convicted for exercising her human right to freely express herself, which she exercised by calling on the Egyptian authorities to meet their obligation to protect the population from gender-based violence and commenting on the effectiveness of the services they provide. This is hardly a threat to national security or insult to public decency,” said Said Benarbia, Director of ICJ’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “We hope the Court will recognize the charges are completely without legitimacy.”
Amal Fathy was detained from the time of her arrest on 11 May 2018 and following her conviction, despite posting bail. Her ongoing detention was based on charges issued by the Supreme State Security Prosecution on 12 May 2018 in a second case (Case No. 621/2018), including “membership in a terrorist organization,” “the use of the internet to promote ideas and beliefs calling for terrorist acts” and “spreading false news and rumors that damage public order and harm national interest.” There are at least six other defendants in the case, including two political activists, a journalist and a satirical comedy TV reporter. It is unclear whether she was charged under the Penal Code or Anti-Terrorism Law of 2015. On 18 December 2018, the South Cairo Court of Felonies ordered her conditional release and she is expected to be released on 22 December 2018.
“The Egyptian authorities have increasingly used pre-trial detention to harass human rights defenders or anyone who opposes the authorities and to chill them from further exercising their rights,” said Said Benarbia. “Case 621 is a concrete example, where trumped up charges are used as a tool to such ends.”
Amal Fathy’s arbitrary arrest and detention is no isolated case. In September, UN experts condemned Egypt’s systematic targeting and prolonged arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, expressing particular concern over Amal Fathy’s case. Local and international organizations, including the ICJ, have also documented and criticized the persecution of human rights defenders and political activists in Egypt through the use of the courts. The ICJ has documented how the Egyptian justice system is consistently used as a repressive tool to silence and eradicate political expression and human rights work.
Amal Fathy was arrested at dawn on 11 May 2018, along with her husband Mohamed Lotfy, Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a human rights non-government organization. They were taken together with their three-year-old son to the Maadi Police Station. Lofty was released shortly after with their son and Fathy remained in detention until 18 December 2018. Fathy was charged under Articles 102bis, 178 and 306 of the Egyptian Penal Code (Case No. 7991/2018).
In the second case, which is still at the investigation stage, reports indicate the South Cairo Court of Felonies requires Amal Fathy to visit a police station for one hour each week and remain at her home unless she requires medical treatment as conditions of her release. Her next appearance is on 26 December 2018.
During the investigation of felonies related to national security, under Articles 143 and 206bisof the Egyptian Criminal Procedure Code, the Prosecutor can hold defendants in pretrial detention for up to five months (10 times 15-day renewals) before they must be referred to the competent criminal court for trial. Under Article 143, once the case is referred to the competent court, a defendant’s pre-trial detention can be extended each 45 days for up to 18 months, or “not exceeding two years if the penalty prescribed for the felony is life imprisonment or the death penalty.” Article 143 goes on to provide that “in cases of felonies punishable with the death penalty or life imprisonment, the Court of Cassation and the Court of Referral may order that the accused be held in custody for a renewable forty-five days, without the [above] time restriction.” This leaves the possibility for defendants to be detained indefinitely, which is open to abuse. In a mass trial of 739 defendants, all 320 arrested, including photo journalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, remained in pre-trial detention for more than five years, before a verdict was handed down in September this year.
Article 9 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a party, protects freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention and imposes an obligation on States to ensure a number of protections, including the right to be brought promptly before a judge and the right to habeas corpus. Article 19 of the ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders similarly protects such rights exercised by human rights defenders and enjoins States to protect them from violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action for the lawful exercise of such rights.

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