Egypt: Striking a Blow Against Impunity?

Impunity is one of the great building blocks of the state of oppression in Egypt.  Without government and security officials believing that their actions are beyond the reach of the law, torture might disappear, administrative detention would desist and trials might become fair.

That’s why what’s going on in a trial of two police officers accused of beating to death of a man outside an Alexandria internet café in June is so important.  In a government where torture and abuse is systematic, police and security officials rarely are brought to trial for their actions. In the rare occasion that they are convicted, they are generally given short sentences or are freed without jail term.

The trial, which opened on Tuesday, was delayed for two months. The two officers are not charged yet with murder, although prosecutors may be upgrading the charges.  If convicted, they face between three and 15 years in prison.

Egyptian activists are determined to ensure that the men responsible for the death of blogger Khaled Mohammed Said are held accountable.  According to news reports, large masses of people demonstrated outside the courtroom today, determined to let authorities know that what was happening inside was being watched.

The death of Khaled Said has moved the Egyptian public in a way that few other cases have.  In addition to the large crowd at the opening session of the trial, previous demonstrations in Alexandria have been both regular and large.  It appears to be one of those moments in which civil society is roused to action, and from all indications, the government is concerned.

Said’s family believes that.  At the opening session of the trial, the victim’s uncle said he could feel change. “I am supposed to be sad,” he told the media. “But the Egyptian people are behind me. The lawyers support me. So, whatever the outcome, I will be satisfied,”

But already there are concerns.  Amnesty has called on Egyptian authorities to protect witnesses in the case. Amnesty reports that some witnesses are afraid to come forward after nine men with knives attacked a friend of Said last week.

“The referral for trial of the two police officers accused of assaulting Khaled Mohammed Said shortly before his death is a welcome first step towards breaking the cycle of impunity that has for so long facilitated torture and abuse of suspects by police in Egypt,” said Malcolm Smart, director of AI’s Middle East and North Africa program.

The wild card here is the Egyptian judiciary.  The government has spent the past decade or so attempting to bring the nominally independent judiciary under its will, often bypassing it for a system of special and extraordinary courts.  But there have been times when the civilian judiciary, sensitive at such moments to public need, rises up and states its independence.

It’s hard to expect after decades of seeing claims of torture and brutality go without punishment, matters would change in the death of Khaled Said.  But the trial bears watching, and if activists and the public have their way, the case will mark a blow against the structure of impunity that has muzzled Egyptian civil society for so long.

Iranian Lawyer and Human Rights Activist Shadi Sadr Detained in Evin Prison

Lawyer and human rights activist Shadi Sadr has been arrested and detained by Iranian authorities. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Sadr was walking with friends to Friday Jummah prayers when she was violently confronted by a group of unidentified plain-clothed men. She was beaten with batons after attempting to escape, losing her headscarf in the process. Sadr was then pushed into an unmarked car and was subsequently driven off.

She confirmed in a phone call to her husband that she had been arrested and was detained in ward 209 of Tehran’s Evin prison. Ms. Sadr has long served as a defender of human rights issues in Iran and is a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters. A lawyer and journalist, she was the director of Raahi, a legal advice center for women until it was closed down. She founded Zanan-e Iran (Women of Iran), the first website dedicated to the work of Iranian women’s rights activists and has written extensively about Iranian women and their legal rights. She has represented activists and journalists, several women sentenced to execution, whose convictions were subsequently overturned.

Amnesty International has called for the unconditional and immediate release of Ms. Sadr. “This was an illegal, arbitrary and violent arrest in which no attempt was made by the authorities to show identification or provide any explanation for their action,” said Malcolm Smart, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

What's A Uighur?

Corrected 2/4/10

This question was part of the opening remarks in a talk given several years ago by one of the attorneys representing the Uighurs at Guantanamo. We didn’t know the answer. But since then we’ve learned a lot.

Over the past few years, information about the Guantanamo Uighurs has filtered out into the mainstream media. (After more than seven years, 13 Uighurs are still at Gitmo). While not exactly a household word, “Uighur” became something that people might have “heard something about somewhere.”

Now a frightful window has opened up on the Uighurs’ world in Western China. The ethnic violence that broke out this past weekend did not come out of nowhere. It came from years of brutal oppression. It erupted when Uighurs took to the streets (peacefully) to protest the stalled investigation into the deaths of two Uighur factory workers. The demonstration was violently suppressed, and the Uighurs fought back.

This is a Uighur woman desperate to find out what has happened to her husband and four brothers. The Chinese came into their home while they were eating dinner and took them away.

The Uighurs call their homeland – live in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, a vast, resource-rich region of central Asia which they sometimes refer to as East Turkistan.  Since it was annexed by China, it is formally known as the Xinjian Uyghur “Autonomous” Region. There is no “autonomy.” Its ‘autonomy’ is questionable. You can read all about it: