In the wake of continuing reports of human rights abuses after the 25 January revolution, the international human rights advocacy organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) is recommending reforms to the Egyptian government and the ruling military council that they deem essential to ensure a transition to full democracy.
“The Military has no experience in democratic transition, it is learning on the job, the grounds for optimism is that it has shown that it’s susceptible to pressure,” said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch in a press conference on Tuesday concluding a three-day visit by an HRW delegation.
Roth advised the Egyptian people to keep putting pressure on the military, which he says “will not come up with democratic reform ideas on its own.”
The visit included meetings with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Guindy, and Assistant Interior Minister Marwan Mostafa.
The delegation concluded that, while reforms had been made in some areas, the lack of other needed human rights reforms puts Egypt’s democratic transition at risk.
The delegation’s most pressing recommendations concerned the military, the Ministry of Interior, and freedom of expression.
The delegation demanded an end to military trials for civilians and called for retrials for those serving military sentences, in addition to investigations into torture allegations made against military police.
Five thousand six hundred civilians were tried in military tribunals in the last four months, according to HRW.
Despite recent mass releases of protesters, Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher at HRW, says that at least five protesters are still serving their military sentences. Morayef maintains that even criminals should be tried in fair civilian trials.
The organization also criticized the use of excessive force by the military on numerous occasions. The military has used whips and electric batons against protesters on more than one occasion, according to HRW’s research.
Roth revealed that his discussions with officials on the widely criticized virginity tests that the military forced female protesters to undertake left him unsatisfied with offial explanations. However, he said that he was encouraged by their promise that it would not happen again.
The military said that the tests aimed at securing the military police against accusations of rape from the girls “as if only virgins can be raped,” said Roth, suggesting other measures that could be used to protect girls from rape in the custody of the military, such as securing their cells.
Roth also showed his dismay over recent military interrogations of journalists who criticized the ruling military council. Roth says he didn’t understand the distinction made by a SCAF member who explained to him that the council tolerates criticism but invites the journalists for a “friendly cup of coffee“ when they make accusations.
“In these circumstances, the military should have a thicker skin and put up with both criticism and accusations. The SCAF should have the confidence to respond to these accusations verbally,” said Roth.
HRW also expressed concern that senior officials in the Ministry of Interior who ordered torture and kidnapping under the former regime are not being prosecuted. The rights group also requested more guarantees that the newly established National Security Agency is not “a different name for the same thing.”
On being told by an official in the Ministry of Interior that torture in State Security was not systematic, Roth judged that the ministry is still in state of denial, making it hard to trust that it will implement the much-needed reforms. Local and international human rights groups documented torture in State Security for years before the organization was dissolved in March.
Roth said that the prosecution of all who carried out torture, both low and high ranking officials, is essential for Egypt’s transformation.
“Egyptians deserve a clean break from the entrenched practice of torture that characterized Mubarak’s reign,” said Roth.
Roth sais that the Ministry of Justice had failed to inform him of the process of former President Hosni Mubarak’s trial. He says that HRW will keep an eye on the trial to make sure that the ousted president receives a fair trial and gets prosecuted for all his crimes, including killing protesters and ordering torture.
HRW recommended many legal and constitutional changes that would allow for more freedom of expression and association, stating that “free and fair elections require guarantee of free expression.”
The organization recommends ending the state of emergency and abolishing the Emergency Law, which has been in place for 30 years, judging that the security situation in Egypt currently does not justify a state of emergency.
The group recommends abolishing penal code provisions that criminalize freedom of expression, as well as the new law criminalizing strikes and demonstrations, the assembly law of 1914, which gives the government the right to dismiss any assembly of more than five people, and the association laws, which allow the government to interfere in nongovernmental organizations.
A judicial source told Roth that the electoral machinery in Egypt is below the standards in India and Sudan. HRW recommended that Egypt invest in its electoral process in order to guarantee fair parliamentary elections in September.