Egypt: State Security Prosecution operating as a ‘sinister tool of repression’

A new report published by Amnesty International exposes how Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) is routinely misusing counter-terror legislation to prosecute thousands of peaceful critics and suspend guarantees to fair trial.

The report, Permanent State of Exception, reveals how the SSSP, a special branch of the Public Prosecution responsible for investigating national security threats, is complicit in enforced disappearances, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, torture and other ill-treatment. It has detained thousands of people for prolonged periods on spurious grounds and rampantly violated detainees’ fair trial rights.

In Egypt today, the Supreme State Security Prosecution has stretched the definition of ‘terrorism’ to encompass peaceful protests, social media posts and legitimate political activities

Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International

“In Egypt today, the Supreme State Security Prosecution has stretched the definition of ‘terrorism’ to encompass peaceful protests, social media posts and legitimate political activities, resulting in peaceful government critics being treated as enemies of the state. The SSSP has become a central tool of repression whose primary goal appears to be arbitrarily detaining and intimidating critics, all in the name of counter-terrorism,” said Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“Many of those prosecuted by the SSSP were detained for peacefully expressing their opinions or defending human rights and should never have been arrested in the first place.”

Amnesty International’s report documents the cases of dozens of human rights defenders and peaceful critics of the government who have been brought before the SSSP.

They include Zyad el-Elaimy, a human rights lawyer and member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, who was arrested for attempting to co-found a parliamentary coalition called the “Hope Coalition” to run in the 2020 parliamentary elections, and Abeer el-Safty, a journalist who has been detained following her refusal to be coerced by the police into voting in a 2019 referendum.

Rise of the SSSP

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in 2013, there has been a nearly threefold increase in the number of cases prosecuted by the SSSP – from around 529 in 2013 to 1,739 in 2018.

The meteoric rise in SSSP prosecutions has enabled the authorities to detain suspects nominally in “pre-trial detention” pending investigations, but in reality, many are detained for months and years without evidence, based on secret police investigations and without recourse to an effective remedy. This has in effect allowed the authorities to replicate the long-term administrative detention practices under the emergency law which were a hallmark of the Mubarak era in Egypt until a 2013 Supreme Constitutional Court ruling found the relevant provision unconstitutional.

Since then, the SSSP has consistently flouted the powers available to it in order to target opponents of the government. This comes in a context where an unprecedented crackdown on human rights in Egypt has been taking place over the past six years. Astate of emergency has been renewed continuously by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since 2017.

“The SSSP, along with the National Security Agency (NSA), a special police force, and counter-terrorism courts have emerged as a parallel justice system for detaining, interrogating and trying peaceful dissidents. The normalization of the SSSP’s role points to a permanent state of exception, where the rights to liberty and fair trial as well as freedom from torture are suspended for anyone accused of ‘terrorism’,” said Philip Luther.

Amnesty International’s report documents the cases of 138 people detained by the SSSP between 2013 and 2019. It is based on more than 100 interviews, as well as reviews of official court and police documents, medical records, videos and reports by NGOs and UN agencies.

Of these cases, 56 individuals were detained for participating in protests or for statements they made on social media, 76 were detained based on their political or human rights activities or background and six were accused of involvement in incidents of violence.

Most were investigated on accusations of membership in or aiding a terrorist or other illegal group with the aim of harming public order or security. Yet in practice many were detained solely on the basis of secret police investigations, which Egypt’s top court ruled in 2015 do not on their own constitute evidence, or on the basis of online content that criticised the Egyptian authorities but did not constitute incitement.

Prolonged arbitrary detention

The report highlights how the SSSP has routinely abused the special powers that it is afforded under Egyptian law – usually reserved for judges – which allow it to order the prolonged pre-trial detention of suspects for up to 150 days. Detainees can submit a request to appeal the decision but it is left to the SSSP’s discretion which cases will be heard in front of an actual judge rather than a SSSP prosecutor.

After the first 150 days, the SSSP then requests special “terrorism circuit courts” to renew the detention of suspects every 45 days. Even at this stage, the SSSP gets to decide who gets to appeal judges’ decisions and who do not. Even when judges order the release of detainees, the SSSP has circumvented judicial orders by ordering the detention of suspects in connection with new charges.

Using these tools, the SSSP has arbitrarily detained thousands for months and sometimes years, based on vague “terrorism”- related accusations. Amnesty’s investigations found that detainees were kept in pre-trial detention for an average of 345 days and in one case for 1,263 days, before being released without being referred to trial. During that time, detainees were rarely questioned more than once.

Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who was accused of broadcasting false news, has been detained since 23 December 2016. His detention was repeatedly renewed, first by the SSSP then by a judge, until May 2019 when his release on probation was ordered. However, the SSSP ignored the decision and ordered his detention once more on new accusations.

Complicity in torture and enforced disappearances

Amnesty International’s report also highlights how the SSSP is complicit in enforced disappearance and torture. It systematically neglects to investigate allegations of such abuse and admits confessions extracted through torture as evidence in trials. In some cases, defendants were subsequently sentenced to death and executed on the basis of this evidence.

The report documents 112 cases of enforced disappearance for periods of up to 183 days by security forces, mostly by the NSA.

Human rights lawyer Hoda Abdelmoniem remained subject to enforced disappearance for three months. During that time she appeared in front of the SSSP and informed them that the police was detaining her in an undisclosed location without access to her lawyer or family, but prosecutors did not take any action to investigate, nor did they order her to be transferred to a regular place of detention, until after 90 days of enforced disappearance.

The report also reveals that the SSSP failed to investigate 46 cases of torture or other ill-treatment documented in Amnesty International’s report. Human rights activist Esraa Abdelfattah told the SSSP that NSA officers had abducted, beaten and tortured her including by attempting to strangle her. Prosecutors failed to open an investigation into these allegations.

The SSSP also systematically failed to inform defendants of their rights, denying them access to lawyers and subjecting them to coercive questioning, including by keeping detainees blindfolded, holding them in inhumane conditions and threatening that they would be sent back to the NSA to face torture and interrogation.

“It is outrageous that an institution intended to bring legal proceedings to deliver justice is so blatantly flouting its responsibilities to guarantee fair trial rights and is instead complicit in the torture and enforced disappearance of detainees,” said Philip Luther.

“Egyptian authorities must open a public commission of inquiry into the role of the SSSP in prolonged arbitrary detention, violations of fair trial rights, and complicity in police abuses.”

Lawyers representing clients facing prosecution by the SSSP also reported being subjected to threats, harassment, arrests and detention in connection with their work. Human rights defenders and lawyers Mahienour el-Masry and Mohamed el-Baqer were both detained while representing detainees at the offices of the SSSP.

Whitewashing the crackdown

Two months ago, Egyptian authorities responded to a rare outbreak of protests with a massive wave of arrests, detaining more than 4,000 people, many at random, within a matter of weeks. The SSSP has been investigating the vast majority of these cases for their alleged involvement in protests and in connection with “terrorism” related accusations.

“On a global stage, Egyptian authorities have sought to whitewash their crackdown on freedom of expression by claiming they are clamping down on ‘terrorists’. But in reality, the Egyptian authorities consider even peaceful opposition and expression as “terrorism”. The international community must not be fooled by this deceptive rhetoric,” said Philip Luther.

“Egypt’s international allies must not sacrifice their human rights principles for the sake of business and security ties. They must press the Egyptian authorities to reform the SSSP and release all those detained for peacefully expressing their opinions or defending human rights.”