Egypt: End two year arbitrary detention of human rights defender Hisham Gaafar

The Egyptian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release the journalist and human rights defender, Hisham Gaafar, who will complete two years in arbitrary pre-trial detention on 21 October, Amnesty International said. He is being held in inhumane conditions and prolonged solitary confinement causing his health to deteriorate seriously.
Security forces arrested Hisham Gaafar on trumped up charges in October 2015. Since then, a judicial panel has repeatedly renewed his pre-trial detention without examining the scant evidence prosecutors have presented against him.
“It is disgraceful that Hisham Gaafar has been forced to spend two years behind bars. His arbitrary and prolonged pre-trial detention is another shameful illustration of how Egypt’s judiciary is abusing the criminal justice system to punish peaceful critics and dissidents,” said Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director at Amnesty International.
“Hisham Gaafar is a prisoner of conscience solely detained for his human rights work. He should never have been detained in the first place. His prolonged and arbitrary detention is a flagrant breach of both Egyptian and international law that the judges should not allow to be extended by even one more day.”
Hisham Gaafar, 53, is the director of Mada Foundation for Media Development, an NGO which provides consultation, training and information on a variety of human rights and development topics. He had been researching sectarian violence and democratic transition before his arrest.
On 21 October 2015, officers from the National Security Agency of the Ministry of Interior seized him from his office in Cairo without an arrest warrant. They searched the premises and confiscated documents and office laptops. Simultaneously, another force raided his home in Cairo. They held his wife and his children inside the house for 17 hours before leaving with their cell phones, laptops and personal documents.
He is being detained on the unfounded charges of receiving funds from foreign agencies for “the purpose of harming national security” and belonging to “a banned group” – the Muslim Brotherhood. If convicted, he could face a sentence of life in prison.
According to Article 143 of Egypt’s Code of Criminal Procedure, the maximum period of pre-trial detention must not exceed six months for defendants accused of crimes punished by up to three years in prison, 18 months for crimes punished by up to 15 years in prison and two years for crimes punished by death or life imprisonment.
The judges reviewing Hisham Gaafar’s detention are therefore obliged, by law, to release him once he completes two years in pre-trial detention. His next review session is scheduled for 26 October.
His lawyer Karim Abdelrady, from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told Amnesty International that since his arrest, the Supreme Sate Security Prosecution has failed to present any evidence
justifying his continued detention. He added that the prosecution has based its investigation on reports from the National Security Agency and lawyers have not been allowed any access to the case file.
Systematic use of pre-trial detention
Since July 2013, thousands have been held in custody as a result of Egypt’s abusive pre-trial detention system which grants judges and prosecutors broad powers to justify detaining defendants before and during trials.
During the Mubarak era, the authorities used to circumvent the limits on pre-trial detention by applying the Emergency Law, which allowed them to use administrative detention to hold individuals indefinitely without charge or trial. Today, the Egyptian authorities’ routine use of prolonged pre-trial detention is again being used as a means to evade fair trial guarantees and silence any form of peaceful dissent.
“Since President Abdelfattah el-Sisi came to power, prolonged pre-trial detention has become a systematic means of punishing dissenters rather than a preventative and exceptional measure. Hundreds of individuals have been held in detention for periods of up to four years awaiting their court verdicts,” said Najia Bounaim.
“The failure of the judiciary to ensure that pre-trial detention is only used when necessary, in exceptional circumstances, is significantly eroding its independence.”
The judiciary’s application of pre-trial detention has also revealed major inconsistencies. For example, former President Hosni Mubarak, who was being tried for ordering the killing of protesters during the 25 January uprising and was at risk of facing the death penalty, was released in April 2013 after two years in pre-trial detention, while at least 737 people being tried for participating in the Rabaa sit-in have been detained for more than four years since August 2013.
Inhumane detention conditions
Hisham Gaafar is being detained in al-Aqrab prison in dire conditions and has been in prolonged solitary confinement for the past seven months. He is not allowed regular exercise outside the cell. Occasionally, prison guards allow him to walk along the corridor of his ward for between 30 and 60 minutes. Other times, he is confined to his cell for 24 hours. According to his relatives, his cell lacks a bed or mattresses, proper lighting and ventilation; and is infested by insects due to sewage leaks.
Manar Tantawie, Hisham Gaafar’s wife, told Amnesty International that since March 2017, his family has only been able to visit him four times – for less than 15 minutes each time. She told Amnesty International that he has been suffering from optic nerve atrophy in both eyes and an enlarged prostate. She added that the poor prison conditions and the lack of proper food in prison had led to the deterioration of his health. She also said the family had submitted petitions and complaints to the President, the Public Prosecutor and the Minister of Interior calling for his release.
“All our calls have gone unanswered. The detention of Hisham is destroying our family,” she told Amnesty International.
Soon after his arrest in October 2015, Hisham Gaafar described his prison cell at al-Aqrab like being in “a grave”.
“Holding detainees in squalid prison conditions is not just cruel and inhumane, it is a violation of international law which in certain circumstances could amount to torture,” said Najia Bounaim.