An Egyptian terrorism court sentenced prominent human rights leader Bahey eldin Hassan in absentia on Aug. 25 to 15 years imprisonment. His crimes: “insulting the judiciary” and “propagating fake news.” The charges were based on tweets critical of the judiciary and for comments at a side event of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The tweets criticized Egypt’s courts for failing to hold accountable those responsible for widespread violations of human rights since now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in 2013.
This harsh sentence marks an escalation in Egypt’s long-running crackdown on peaceful dissent, including the activities of human rights defenders like Hassan, who is general director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, where I serve as senior director for advocacy. It also reflects Sisi’s sustained efforts to delegitimize human rights under the cover of countering terrorism, whether domestically or internationally via the United Nations.
Within Egypt, the judge’s decision in Hassan’s case constitutes the first time that a court from this special terrorism circuit has been used to sentence such a well-known human rights leader, and the longest sentence imposed on a human rights defender.
The judges who serve in this circuit have a reputation for being malleable and subservient to the national security apparatus that plays a prominent role in Sisi’s extremely repressive police state. State media reports of the sentence suggest that the judge in this case lived up to that reputation by fabricating charges of “inciting violence” that were not included in the case file drawn up by the prosecutor.
The result points to intimidation as the purpose of the prosecution and the court ruling. State-controlled media can now stigmatize Hassan as a person convicted in a counterterrorism court of inciting violence, despite the fact that the conduct on which the verdict is based has no relation to terrorism or violence.
Persecuting Rights Defenders Under the IMF’s Nose
The regime clearly is sending a message to Egyptian human rights activists inside and outside the country. Like Hassan, increasing numbers of Egyptian human rights defenders have been forced into exile to avoid persecution at home, and many of them have not been silent. Together with courageous activists still inside the country who face prison terms, arbitrary detention, travel bans, asset seizures, and interminable criminal investigations for their activities, exiled activists are an increasingly visible force in international campaigns to highlight the oppression and injustices of Sisi’s Egypt.
The Egyptian government would like to silence critics of its appalling human rights record for many reasons. Egypt faces severe economic challenges and is increasingly dependent on massive loans from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund. These institutions have standards of governance and transparency intended to guard against corruption and to ensure that funds are put to their intended purposes. Sisi’s severe crackdown on independent civil society and media and his weakening of judicial independence should set off alarms that Egypt is falling short of meeting these requirements. Yet the IMF approved a $5.2 billion loan on June 26 in addition to a $2.77 billion rescue the previous month, both to offset the economic blow of the pandemic, without applying any clear governance-related conditions.
Moreover, Egypt benefits from military assistance of $1.3 billion a year from the United States. It also enjoys close security relationships with other Western governments that claim to care about the human rights practices of their international partners.
In addition, Egypt has pushed its anti-rights agenda in cultivating an international reputation as a global leader in the field of counterterrorism at the United Nations. During its membership of the U.N. Security Council in 2016 to 2017, Egypt chaired the Counter-Terrorism Committee. Under its presidency of the Security Council in May 2017, the council adopted resolution 2354 providing for “a comprehensive international framework to counter terrorist narratives.” Egypt’s candidate to head the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime prevailed in that contest: former Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Waly, who played a prominent role in the suppression of independent Egyptian civil society. And the country currently serves as co-convener, with Spain, of the biennial review of the U.N. Global Counter-terrorism Strategy (UNGCTS).
In all of these pursuits, Egypt seeks to use its influence to shift the emphasis of the U.N.’s global counterterrorism efforts away from human rights. At the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, Egypt works persistently to alter U.N. counterterrorism resolutions to emphasize “the effect of terrorism on the right to life, freedom and individual security and the threat it poses to economic and social development with all the grave repercussions that has for human rights.” Using this formulation, Egypt undermines the fourth pillar of the UNGCTS, which makes human rights and the rule of law the fundamental basis of all counterterrorism efforts and recognizes civil society engagement as key to the legitimacy and effectiveness of counterterrorism efforts.
Twisting the Meaning of Human Rights
Egypt aims to use the framework of counterterrorism as carte blanche for member nations to violate human rights. Its emphasis on the effect of terrorism elevates counterterrorism measures to human rights objectives in themselves and, conveniently for the Sisi government, enables states to suggest that countering terrorism, even in ways that violate human rights standards, is somehow still a human rights-positive activity.
Egypt’s hostility towards the human rights pillar of the U.N. counterterrorism strategy can also be seen in its sustained efforts to dilute the scope of the mandate of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism (full disclosure: Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who holds this mandate, is an executive editor of Just Security).
The baseless prosecution, unfair trial and draconian sentencing of Bahey eldin Hassan is another sign of Egypt’s determination to delegitimize human rights as a central element of counterterrorism strategy, not only within the country, but internationally. The message of Hassan’s sentence is that nonviolent critics of Egypt’s disregard for human rights will be prosecuted and defamed by being associated with terrorism.
This outrageous conduct is diametrically opposed to the UN’s Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. It should remind the international community of the need to definitively reject efforts by authoritarian governments like Egypt to misuse the need to counter the threat of terrorism as a pretext to violate human rights.