HRW criticizes draft law on protests

Human Rights Watch on Monday called on the Egyptian presidency and Justice Ministry to amend a law regulating protests, saying the draft law submitted by the government severely restricts the right to peaceful protest and increases police violence.

The organization said in a statement it sent to Egyptian authorities that the proposed law falls short of satisfying Egypt's human rights obligations and international criteria, calling on the government to amend the law submitted to the Shura Council on 17 February.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said, " This law as drafted would severely restrict one of the key human rights that determine Egyptians’ ability to continue to call for bread, freedom, and social justice."

"Governments have a right to regulate demonstrations, but not to ban them for spurious reasons or to keep them out of sight and sound of every government building.”

“The best guarantee of respect for new laws passed by the Egyptian Parliament is to ensure that the laws fully respect the rights at stake,” Whitson said. “The vicious cycle of violence Egypt has seen recently can only be addressed through police reform and accountability, not by giving the police and other state authorities more leeway to restrict demonstrations or use force against protesters.”

Key concerns in the draft law are vague terms in Article 4 prohibiting demonstrations that interfere with “citizens’ interests,” or that halt "traffic" or interfere with "the right to work."

Any violation of Article 4 would allow the police to forcibly disperse a protest, Human Rights Watch said. This, in effect, amounts to collective punishment of protesters, since if one protester assaults a police officer, it would be sufficient grounds for the police to disperse the entire demonstration, even if the vast majority of demonstrators are peaceful, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 9 of the draft law would effectively bar demonstrators from coming within 200 meters of any national government, legislative or judicial building, as well as local government buildings. That restriction would place demonstrators out of sound and sight of virtually every official in the country, Human Rights Watch said. The requirement is excessive and restricts the essence of the right of citizens to convey a message to officials through peaceful assembly, it added.

The draft law also lists a set of crimes in Article 13 that are already fully criminalized by the penal code, such as assault or destruction of private or public property, imposes an additional penalty of a minimum of one week in prison, and an excessive fine of LE 20,000-50,000 (US$3,000-7,400) for any violation outlined in the article.

The article also bans protesters from wearing masks or covering their faces, which would clearly discriminate against Egyptian women who wear the niqab. When asked about this in a live interview on the Egyptian TV station CBC, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky responded that women who wear the niqab should “stay at home.”

Article 5 of the draft law would require demonstrators to submit a written notification three days in advance of a demonstration, and Article 8 stipulates that the Interior Ministry must apply for a judge’s permission to cancel a demonstration. The article places no requirement for a timely response by the judge within the three-day period, however, which would create further uncertainty about the legal status of the demonstration. The law also fails to provide exceptions for smaller demonstrations that would cause no disruption, and for urgent and spontaneous demonstrations in response to news, Human Rights Watch said.

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