CAIRO – A leading international human rights group has asked Egypt's interim authorities to organize a free and fair election ahead of the country's vote on the amended constitution, in the wake of several arrests and detentions’ campaign launched against civilian activists.
“Egyptian citizens should be free to vote for or against the new constitution, not fear arrest for simply campaigning for a ‘no’ vote,” Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a news release by the group on Monday, January 13.
“Protecting the right to vote requires safeguarding the right to free expression.”
35-year-old store owner Mahmoud Emam was also detained on 10 January when police pulled him off a minibus at a police checkpoint in Cairo's Abbassiya and found posters calling for a 'no' vote in his belongings.
The posters read “No to the Constitution” and “2013 = 2012” in Arabic at the top, and include the name of the Strong Egypt party in both Arabic and English at the bottom.
Different variations of the middle section contain one of five slogans in Arabic: “No to Military Trials for Civilians,” “No to the Army’s Loss of Prestige and Politicization,” “No to the Denial of Oversight Over the Corruption of Institutions,” “No to the Loss of the Rights of the Downtrodden to the Account of Businessmen,” and “No to the Continuation of the Interior Ministry’s Thuggery.”
Upon seeing this last sign, officers at the checkpoint who arrested Emam punched him repeatedly, exclaiming: “We will show you the thuggery of the Interior Ministry,” Emam told Human Rights Watch.
He was charged with alleged involvement in terrorism.
Sami Ashraf, Mohamed Abu Leila, and Ahmed Badawi were detained on 12 January for “distributing fliers”, facing later charges of attempting to overthrow the regime, inciting citizens to reject the constitution, and engaging in incitement against the police and army.
Police arrested 20-year-old engineering student Mohamed Baghat in Khosous, a city in the Qalioubiya Governorate, on 11 January for spraying “No to the Constitution” on the wall of a public school, where a “Yes to the Constitution” conference was being held.
The arrests of the Strong Egypt activists fit an increasingly prevalent practice of police detaining political activists solely on the basis of peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch said.
“The assessment of whether a vote is free and fair has to involve a comprehensive evaluation of the political climate,” Stork, MENA deputy director of HRW said.
“Prosecutors should immediately drop the charges against the Strong Egypt activists and ensure that citizens can peacefully protest during the referendum,” he added
With specific regards to the campaign around the referendum, the ONA news agency reported on December 9, 2013, that police had arrested seven activists from al-Azhar University carrying banners calling for “No to the Constitution” and “No to the Protest Law.”
According to the state-run al-Ahram newspaper, police in Aswan in Upper Egypt arrested nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood on January 5, 2014, for distributing flyers calling for a boycott of the referendum.
In a January 10 news conference, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim declared “every Friday no less than 500 to 600 get arrested… at the beginning, we used to wait for the demonstration to turn violent, but now we confront them once they congregate. When we confront them, there are some that run, but, whoever we can grab, we detain.”
Over the past three Fridays police have arrested 703 protesters and killed 27, according to the Interior and Health Ministries.
Ibrahim also warned that “any attempt to disrupt the referendum or to prevent citizens from voting will be confronted by a level of force and severity that has not been seen before.”
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, Egypt is required to protect freedom of expression.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body of experts that reviews states’ compliance with the ICCPR, has written that the freedom of expression is “essential” to the full enjoyment of the right to participate in public affairs and vote.
Article 65 of Egypt’s draft constitution states that “[a]ll individuals have the right to express their opinion through speech, writing, imagery, or any other means of expression and publication.”
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