GENEVA (23 June 2014) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she was “shocked and alarmed” by the verdicts and heavy jail sentences of between 7 and 10 years handed down to three Al Jazeera journalists on Monday, as well as 11 other defendants who were tried in absentia.
While noting that they are subject to appeal, Pillay said the Al Jazeera verdicts, along with Saturday’s confirmation by an Egyptian court of the death penalty for 183 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters convicted in an earlier mass trial, are the latest in a string of prosecutions and court proceedings that have been “rife with procedural irregularities and in breach of international human rights law.”
The High Commissioner expressed her alarm at the increasingly severe clampdown and physical attacks on both media and civil society activists in Egypt, which is hampering their ability to operate freely.
“I am particularly concerned about the role of the judicial system in this clampdown,” she said.
“Harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists, including bloggers, as well as violent attacks by unidentified assailants, have become commonplace,” she added, noting that at least six journalists have been killed in Egypt since August 2013. “Media employees trying to carry out their work in Egypt are now confronted by an extremely difficult and dangerous environment. They should be protected not prosecuted.”
“The charges levelled against the journalists, which include harming national unity and social peace, spreading false reports, and membership of a ‘terrorist organization,’ are far too broad and vague, and therefore reinforce the belief that the real target is freedom of expression,” Pillay said. She noted that charges based on Egypt’s anti-terrorism law have also been used to bring convictions in a number of other trials, including the two mass trials of more than 1,100 people in Minya earlier in the year that led to at least 220 people being handed death sentences, including the 183 whose death sentences were confirmed on Saturday.
“I believe these mass trials and death penalty convictions are obscene, and a complete travesty of justice,” the High Commissioner said.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a binding treaty that Egypt ratified in 1982, states that ‘Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.’
“It is not a crime to carry a camera, or to try to report various points of views about events,” Pillay said. “It is not a crime to criticize the authorities, or to interview people who hold unpopular views. Journalists and civil society members should not be arrested, prosecuted, beaten up or sacked for reporting on sensitive issues. They should not be shot for trying to report or film things we, the public, have a right to know are happening.”
The High Commissioner urged the Egyptian authorities to promptly release all journalists and other media employees imprisoned for carrying out legitimate news reporting activities, including Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Bahar Mohamed, the three journalists who were convicted and sentenced on Monday. . “It is the State’s obligation to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is respected, and that journalists are able to report on diverse views and issues surrounding the current situation in Egypt,” she said. “Crushing media reporting will only hinder Egypt’s efforts to come through this period of social and political turmoil.”
In the light of the succession of highly contentious trials, especially those resulting in the mass imposition of the death penalty, Pillay urged the Government to review the laws on which the trials were based, and in particular the Anti-terrorism Law and the so-called Protest Law, which, since its promulgation in November 2013, has been used to arrest and convict dozens of protesters, including political activists.
“In addition to journalists, several prominent activists have been harshly sentenced in court proceedings that generally fell far short of key international standards for fair trials,” the High Commissioner said, citing the cases of Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma, whose convictions, three-year jail sentences and heavy fines were upheld by an appeal court on 7 April. She also pointed to the 11 June conviction and sentencing of a further 25 Egyptian activists, including Alaa Abdelfattah, Ahmed Abdel Rahman and Wael Metwally to 15 years imprisonment and 100,000 Egyptian pound fines, with a further five years of police surveillance after their release. More civil society activists and protestors, including Abdelfattah’s sister, Sanaa Seif, were arrested at the weekend.
Pillay, a former international judge, also called on Egypt’s judicial establishment to conduct a review of the handling of these and other cases. “Egypt’s reputation, and especially the reputation of its judiciary as an independent institution, are at stake,” she said. “There is a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt.”
*Law n.107/2013 regulating the Right to Public Meetings and Peaceful Assemblies and Demonstrations.