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Inside Egypt's illusory committee to pardon political prisoners

April 26, 2023
topic:Political violence
tags:#Egypt, #freedom of speech, #political prisoners, #democracy
by:Marc Español
A year after being reactivated at the order of President Al Sisi, the body has been totally co-opted by the security services, with the country seeing twice as many arrests as releases.

On the evening of 1 March, Egyptian human rights lawyer Tarek El-Awady announced that the country’s authorities were finalising the procedures to release a new group of 33 political prisoners held in pre-trial detention. Among them were some familiar faces, such as journalist Ahmed Mohamed Allam and leftist activist Ziyad Abu El-Fadl.

Shortly afterwards, local media rushed to credit the release of the batch to the so-called Presidential Pardons Committee, a group created in April 2022 at the behest of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi with the stated aim of reviewing cases of citizens detained for political reasons so that release orders could be granted when deemed appropriate.

Al Sisi’s move came after the country’s powerful security services had been relentlessly cracking down on any hint of perceived opposition for nearly a decade and imprisoning tens of thousands of people, as has been widely documented by human rights groups.

Then, suddenly, Egypt’s strongman took to the stage during the holy month of Ramadan with an extended hand, claiming that he wanted to create "a common ground among all."

But as the country has grown accustomed to, these kinds of high-profile announcements often come with a catch, creating what many see as a false sense of progress. This was illustrated in the batch released in early March: of the 33 political prisoners back on the streets, prominent Egyptian human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat noted, 29 had actually been arrested in 2022, after the formation of the pardons committee.

And their case is far from unique. Human rights lawyers working on Egyptian cases have been warning from the outset that the Pardons Committee, launched a year ago now, has been largely ineffective, as the number of releases is paltry compared to the total number of political prisoners and the rate of arrests is still much higher than that of releases.

Members of the group also note that the process has been co-opted by security services.

"With due respect for its members, the Presidential Pardon Committee is no more than a facade and public relations business with the West," Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), told FairPlanet.

The illusion

The first Presidential Pardons Committee established at Al Sisi’s instructions dates back to 2016, when he announced that a group would be formed and tasked with reviewing cases of youths held in pre-trial detention so that action could be taken by the presidency. The committee submitted several lists and hundreds of young men were released before its work came to a halt after a short period of time.

By the end of 2020, the efforts to secure the release of political prisoners in coordination with authorities had become a more personal undertaking. And Mohamed Anwar El Sadat, a politician from the moderate opposition and nephew of former president Anwar El Sadat, emerged as the most prominent mediator.

The case that drew the most attention was his intervention at the end of 2020 to free three renowned members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who had been arrested after holding a meeting with a group of Western diplomats.

Having identified a way to coordinate with the prosecution and security bodies the release of hundreds of young people, Al Sadat pushed for the creation of a lobby called the International Dialogue Group, made up of well-connected politicians and civil society.

The group’s efforts, however, were soon taken over by the authorities, who in September 2021 published the National Human Rights Strategy, a document that set out for the first time a five-year roadmap to improve the appalling human rights situation in Egypt. The move came as Cairo was facing mounting pressure from the international community over its record of human rights abuses.

Yet groups working on this field were quick to warn that the notion of human rights adopted by the authorities was deliberately vague and broad enough to be able to largely ignore the serious crisis in the country.

Shortly after the human rights strategy was issued, a National Council for Human Rights was formed at the direction of Al Sisi, and several members of the IDG joined it. The Presidential Pardons Committee would be established only half a year later.

"It was, in a way, a kind of [appropriation], to bring it more under control," Al Sadat told FairPlanet. "But as long as they can deliver, I am happy with that," he added.

The committee started working right after it was announced, following a procedure very similar to the one adopted earlier by Al Sadat: it received applications from relatives, political parties, civil society groups and official bodies, studied the cases, prepared lists of names, and handed them over to the authorities so that releases could be granted.

"The committee started [working] in a respectful and serious way, and completed a decent number of requests [at first]," Kamal Abu Eita, a long-time trade unionist, former minister and now member of the committee, told FairPlanet.

One of the changes that came with the reactivation of the committee was that pardons were no longer issued only on special occasions, as had been the norm. For example, last March Al Sisi ordered 85 indebted individuals to be pardoned separately from the body.

Those released since the body’s reactivation also included prominent political prisoners, such as student Ahmed Samir Santawi, activists Hossam Moanis and Hisham Fouad, human rights lawyers Amr Imam and Mohamed Ramadan, and translator Kholoud Saeed.

But soon after the committee was reactivated, human rights groups began to warn that the pace of releases was too slow and benefiting only a measly fraction of the country’s tens of thousands of political prisoners. 

For example, by the end of last July, after three months of activity, the Committee for Justice (CFJ) had documented only 332 releases - compared to the 700 claimed by the committee– while during the same period it had recorded almost 950 arbitrary arrests.

And a few months after it was reactivated, the committee’s work began to become slower, Abu Eita said, to the point that from the end of last summer the process has been co-opted by the security services and the committee had been reduced to a facade with no content.

"I personally worked in the committee 24 hours a day, sending names," Abu Eita said. "But our petitions received no response [starting from last August], and people different from the ones we asked for started to get out [of jail."

The limits

One of the limitations that have been raised about the committee is that it is an informal body that lacks legal powers, has no clear tasks and does not include officials from the judiciary or the security services, which hampers its work and constricts its influence.

At the same time, the criteria for granting presidential pardons are also not well-defined. One of them seems to be that of not belonging to a terrorist group or having committed acts of violence. But both accusations are often used by authorities to press trumped-up charges against critical voices, as have been widely documented by human rights groups.

"I imagined that I would participate in a committee for a general pardon for all prisoners," Abu Eita admitted. "But in the end, the security services controlled the releases, and [it is them who] decide who leaves and who doesn’t, not the committee."

This limit is particularly noticeable with detainees who are members or sympathisers of the opposition group of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose fate is reportedly managed at the highest level in a way that is completely separate from that of other political prisoners.

Similarly, some of the country’s most famous political prisoners who have already been convicted, such as activist Alaa Abd El Fattah and former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, are handled separately and beyond the reach of the committee.

"The [committee] has no power at all. The security [bodies] making the final decisions leave the pardon committee in complete dark about the decision-making process, including the criteria of pardoning or not pardoning political prisoners," Hassan said.

The limits of addressing Egypt’s entrenched crisis of political prisoners through this pardon committee have also been revealed by the struggle of those released from prison to land a job or resuming studies.

An illustrative case is that of political activist Sherif Al-Roubi, who was released last July at the initiative of the pardon committee but was rearrested only two months later after speaking out openly about his plight outside prison.

The pardon committee’s efforts have proved even more futile as the authorities have never stopped sweeping arrests, the widespread use of pre-trial detention and unfair trials.

For instance, from early October to late November 2022, the Egyptian authorities detained over 1,000 people as part of a wide-ranging campaign of arrests following diffuse calls to protest while the country hosted the UN climate change conference COP27, according to data from the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms seen by FairPlanet.

Another ECRF count, also reviewed by FairPlanet, has recorded a total of 1,441 releases from January 2022 to March 2023, while from April 2022 to March 2023 it has documented 3,212 arrests. Between May 2022 and February 2023, the ECRF submitted 4,108 cases to the pardon committee for consideration, of which only 117 have been released.

Since the re-launch of the pardon committee there have also been harsh sentences handed down against political figures and prominent human rights lawyers. The last case was that of a group of human rights workers from the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms who received lengthy sentences of five years to life in prison in early March.

Between norm and exception

In this context, one of the main demands that have been raised is for the committee to stop addressing the crisis of political prisoners on a case-by-case basis, and instead set broad standards that open the door to mass releases that benefit thousands at a time.

Some of the criteria that have been proposed include releasing all those who have been in pre-trial detention for over six months without the prosecution having enough evidence to start a trial, or releasing those who remain under arrest for posts on social media.

Also, the release of those who have been rotated from one case to another or of those who have been convicted on political charges and have already served half of their sentence.

Linked to this approach is the call to avoid institutionalising the work of the committee, as many argue that its nature should be exceptional and tackle a widespread problem all at once, rather than turning it into a part of the work of the judiciary and the prosecution.

"They only receive and collect names, and then it’s all sent to the security services, which are the ones who decide 'this yes,' 'this one not now, perhaps later,' " Al Sadat noted. "Actually, they have no direct involvement or negotiation about the names. This is different from what I used to do. I used to discuss directly with security services," he said.

Another widespread demand is to prioritise the release of elderly and sick political prisoners, two criteria that have so far not been considered despite the rapidly deteriorating health of some prominent figures behind bars.

"The question of the long and short-term fate of the political prisoners in Egypt is a very high political decision, and it is exclusively in the hands of President Sisi," Hassan said. 

"The establishment and reestablishment of subsequent presidential pardon committees from time to time serves well the purpose of relieving embarrassing pressures on the President, [but] not of releasing the political prisoners," he concluded.

Image by Asim Bharwani.

Article written by:
Marc Español
Embed from Getty Images
Egyptian human rights lawyer Tarek El-Awady announced that the country’s authorities were finalising the procedures to release a new group of 33 political prisoners held in pre-trial detention.
Embed from Getty Images
Al Sisi’s move came after the country’s powerful security services had been relentlessly cracking down on any hint of perceived opposition for nearly a decade and imprisoning tens of thousands of people, as has been widely documented by human rights groups.
Embed from Getty Images
“The question of the long- and short-term fate of the political prisoners in Egypt is a very high political decision, and it is exclusively in the hands of President Sisi.”
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