Activists, children swept up in brutal crackdown on dissent: Egypt

In the largest nationwide arrest, security forces stop minors at checkpoints to check their phones for ‘political’ material.

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In a security clampdown to shut down protests against President Abdel-Fattah-el-Sissi, the authorities have arrested at least 3,000 people since September 20, while authorities acknowledge only 1,000 arrests, say several human rights groups. The sheer volume of the clampdown is being seen as a major escalation, even for this regime that has routinely targeted dissenting voices.

This ‘brute monitoring’ has had officials question everyone from protestors on the street to major government critics and even school-going children. Amnesty International claimed that at least 111 children, some as young as 11, were arrested in the crackdown.

Protests outraged against Sissi’s leadership for squandering public funds on palaces and hotels in a country where 32.5% of the population was below the poverty line.

In a similar scene from what happened in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, the Egyptian authorities blocked political and news websites and disrupted internet services to stop the protestors from communicating or documenting government atrocities. The wave of mass arrests paired along with the communication blockade has spread fear among the Egyptians, Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said.

HaseinBaoumi, Egypt researcher for Amnesty International said that the Egyptian authorities were trying to filter any sort of opponents or even critics from among the general population.

In the clampdown what human rights activists called unconstitutional, all the detainees had been added to a single charge sheet and accused of spreading false information, misusing social media, participating in unauthorized protests and aiding a terrorist group. Should they go to trial, it would be the largest criminal prosecution of protesters in the history of Egypt.

Veteran activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was also arrested and tortured in custody, a move that showed how far Egyptian officials could go to silence government critics. After being blindfolded, stripped to his undergarments and beaten ruthlessly, he was told that prison was made for ‘people like him’. His lawyer, Mohammed El Baqir too was detained when he went to represent him. SanaaSeif, Fattah’s sister was also briefly arrested for refusing the security officials to search her phone. In the past Fattah had been spared this level of physical abuse protected by his profile and his other lawyer believes that his arrest is a message to the country – toe the line or face the music.

In a chilling replay of what happened in Kashmir, the Egyptian authorities have detained politicians, journalists, women and children in the clampdown. Foreign nationals, including two British and American university students too were rounded up by officials in the clampdown.

Aaron Boehm, a US citizen said, “We were stopped by a plain-clothes officer who asked to see our phones. I unlocked my phone and handed it to him. He went through every single social media app I had.” Later, Boehm was blindfolded and taken to a detention facility where officials accused him of espionage. He said, “They gave two justifications. Firstly, that my sharing of news articles constituted sharing intelligence with a foreign state, and secondly that my working at an NGO was demonstrative of my intent to undermine the Egyptian regime.”

During his detention that lasted four days, he met people from the Netherlands, Jordan, Turkey, Yemen and Eritrea, of which some were later released. Boehm said he was lucky to not be physically abused for he was from the US, but he did see evidence of torture, including sticks laden with blood and screams of other inmates. He was deported from Egypt on October 1.

In the past, Egypt had seen vehement protests were crowds gathered to overthrow the dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak. These protests led to his ouster. In 2013, the government passed a law banning unauthorized protests and since then not many demonstrations of this magnitude have taken place in Egypt.

The current protests seemed to have been fuelled by Mohamed Ali, a previous contractor with the army and now living in self-imposed exile addressing people through his Facebook videos.

Communication Blockade

Drawing parallels with the communication blockade in Kashmir which is still under siege for more than two months after the abrogation of Article 370, the Egyptian authorities seem to have taken a leaf from our book. Netblocks, a company that monitors major internet disruptions, has said that more than 40 percent users are facing difficulty in connecting to social media platforms.

Around 600 websites are being meddled with of which they have restricted access to BBC’s Arabic website, US-based Alhurra News and Facebook Messenger.

The UN called for protection of free speech under articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In their 2015 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations, UN experts and rapporteurs declared that, even in times of conflict, “using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.”

Arbitrary, Unauthorized Arrests

Information from lawyers say that uniformed and plainclothes security officers randomly stopped passersby forcing them to show the contents of their phones and social media accounts. Anyone with antigovernment slogans or posts was held. Some are merely being caught for being in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’.

The detainees are being held in the National Security Agency’s secret detention centers or camps of the Central Security Forces at al-Darrasa, al-Gabal, al-Asfar and al-Salam which lawyers and family members cannot visit.

International law calls for detainees to be taken to a judge promptly, within 48 hours, but Egyptian law that doesn’t follow that doesn’t meet international standards, detainees are only allowed to meet State Security Prosecution in large numbers where prosecutors order their detention without judicial orders.

Human Rights under Threat throughout the World

Apart from the situations emerging in Kashmir and Egypt, reports coming out of Colombia say that though the drop in assassinations of human rights defenders has reduced in the country, there has been an increase in death threats and other non-lethal acts of violence that are being ignored by the government.

Saudi Arabia has been openly condemned for its worsening record for misuse of torture, unlawful detentions and unfair trials of critics; the most recent being that of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Similar reports seem to be coming from Syria, in which Christians face a threat from Turkey. 

Closer to home, 600,000 Rohingya Muslims face a situation of genocide in Myanmar.

At home, 19,00,000 persons left ‘stateless’ by the government of India, lie in detention camps bearing the burden of proof to prove themselves to be the citizens of India.

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