Imprisoned human rights defenders in Egypt at grave risk of COVID-19, say UN human rights experts
24 August 2020
GENEVA (24 August 2020) – Lengthy and unnecessary pre-trial detention of scores of Egyptian human rights defenders is putting them at grave and unnecessary risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, UN human rights experts* said today.
“There are credible allegations that some Egyptian defenders have been arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared or tortured simply for standing up for human rights,” said Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. “Egypt must release imprisoned human rights defenders and recognise the vital role they play in society.”
There are few publicly available statistics on COVID-19-related deaths in Egyptian prisons, so the experts rely on independently verified third party reports.
“With few physical distancing measures in place in these prisons, we fear that the death toll may be much higher than the cases so far corroborated,” the experts said.
Detained human rights defenders have few opportunities to make known their health conditions, the experts said, because they are not being given a chance to individually contest the charges they face under national security legislation.
“The way Egypt is handling their detention and trials violates international human rights standards,” they said. “Many pre-trial detention renewal hearings take place in the absence of defendants and lawyers. Where defendants are being transferred to court, they have been tried in big groups without individual consideration of personal or medical circumstances.”
“What we are seeing is the denial of the right to a fair trial, at a time when authorities should be stepping up efforts to facilitate the release of prisoners detained without sufficient legal basis or with pre-existing medical conditions,” they said.
They highlighted the case of Ibrahim Ezz El-Din, a defender of the right to housing and against unlawful evictions, who was forcibly disappeared for 167 days last year and allegedly tortured. Now he is in prison, but has not been able to request temporary release on the basis of his pre-existing respiratory condition.
"No circumstances whatsoever may be invoked to justify enforced disappearances,” said the experts. “The pandemic brings a heightened need to protect human rights defenders, as now there is even less space for victims to denounce violations”.
Ezz El Din is just one of many human rights defenders who find their lives at ever increasing risk, the experts said. Others include Esraa Abdel Fattah and Sanaa Seif, both women human rights defenders, and Ramy Kamel, a defender of the Coptic Christian minority. According to information received, none have been allowed to communicate regularly with their families or lawyers.
“Independent access to information about a detainee’s wellbeing is paramount,” they said. “This is a measure to reduce the risk of torture, ill-treatment and other serious violations of human rights. During a pandemic, it becomes even more vital.”
They added that they are in direct dialogue with Egyptian authorities on these and other cases and pledged to closely monitor the situation.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.