One of the first acts taken by Hosni Mubarak when he became Egyptian president in 1981 was to release numerous political prisoners. Amnesty International applauded him but called on the new president to rein in Egyptian security forces and to dismantle the system of administrative detention.
Thirty years later, as Mubarak himself faces criminal charges in Egypt, Amnesty International renews its old call to rein in the security forces and to end the crippling extrajudicial legal system that facilitates torture, punishes political activists and ordinary Egyptians alike and has muzzled a once-vibrant civil society for decades.
In a damning report released April 20, Time for Justice: Egypt’s Corrosive System of Detention, Amnesty International calls for an independent inquiry into human rights abuses committed by the much feared State Security Investigations Service (SSI).
This is a moment for fundamental change. It demands immediate concrete steps from the authorities so that those responsible for serious human rights violations are held to account. Egyptians must see justice done for the human rights abuses of the past.
The report tells the stories of dozens of Egyptians, just a few of the estimated 6,000-10,000 who have been held in administrative detention in recent years under the Mubarak regime. There’s 52-year-old Mohamed Abu Essaoud Ismail from Sharanis village, who almost two decades in detention without charge or trial despite scores of court decisions ordering his release, until he was finally released in February 2011. Alleged to be a member of an armed Islamist group, he was held incognito for seven years before his family was told of the detention. Never tried, he denied he was a member of the group and pledged he practiced non-violence. During this time, he was subjected to torture and other abuses.
The report tells of what happened at an SSI office this past March, when activists stormed the building and seized documents detailing past abuses, including evidence of surveillance networks, as well as purported evidence of torture and other ill-treatment.
Egyptian activists are demanding accountability, and Amnesty International hopes this report will support them by pushing for long-needed reforms to create a new kind of Egyptian state, one that will break with a legacy of human rights violations.
The recommendations follow many outlined in Amnesty International’s Human Rights Agenda for Change for Egypt, issued this past February. We want authorities to immediately end the State of Emergency, release all prisoners of conscience, end incognito and administrative detention, unfair trials and the trying of civilians in military courts.
But in addition, there has to be truth. Egypt must establish an independent, thorough and impartial inquiry into human rights abuses committed by the SSI under the rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
Without accountability, it’s likely that the cycle of promises and disappointments that marked the Mubarak years will be repeated. Two months after Mubarak’s resignation, the Egyptian uprising is as strong as ever. Life has returned to normalcy, but people remain in the streets pushing back against the new rulers whenever they see the pace of reform slowing, or reversing.
One of the activists who entered the SSI building in March had a revelation as he entered. “I passed though the gates of the State Security Intelligence (SSI) headquarters in Nasr City and entered one of the most notorious complexes in Mubarak’s Egypt,” he told an Amnesty International researcher. “Suddenly I was in our Bastille, the scene of our nightmare.”
Egyptians are determined to end that long nightmare. We now have a roadmap of how to do it.