Egypt - Egitto
Hafez Abu Seada
Photo by Eddie Adams
"The government didn’t accept our report documenting the abuses so they targeted our organization. But what I wrote are facts. Hundreds of people were arrested. Hundreds were tortured in the police stations."
Established in 1985, under Hafez Al Sayed Seada’s leadership, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights investigates, monitors, and reports on violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Seada defends victims; strives to create understanding of, and popular support for, the defense of human rights; and works to change laws and government practices that violate international instruments. He has launched numerous campaigns against specific violations, including torture, female genital mutilation, inhumane prison conditions, and religious persecution. Due process in Egypt is hampered by emergency decrees, military and state security courts where due process rights are suspended, a judiciary beholden to the executive, the routine use of torture by security agents, and the deep divisions and suspicions among the many religious and ethnic minorities in the country. Although there are many news outlets, press self-censorship is common, and dissent from the official party line is dangerous. Sexual discrimination is rampant, and women are at a severe disadvantage in family law and access to legal literacy. Seada’s early life as a student activist landed him in prison, where he was mistreated and thrown through a window in an effort to deter him. Instead the experience transformed a university demonstrator into a man with a lifelong commitment to the protection of human rights. Today EOHR is Egypt’s foremost human rights organization.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
The police first arrested me in 1979, at the university, because I participated in a demonstration against the government, to uphold the rights of students to free association, and to work on political issues. They beat me, gave me electric shocks, and tortured me for one month. They kept telling me to reveal who was supporting me, what country or leader was backing me. These scars across my face are from when they pushed me through a window. I was hurt so badly they had to take me to the hospital, where I was operated on and remained for nineteen days. That was the end of the torture, but they kept me in jail for another four months.
A decade later, I decided to work as a human rights lawyer. I joined the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, working without pay, from 1990 until 1993, documenting cases of abuse throughout Egypt and helping to build the organization. In 1997 the board appointed me general director. My country had been suffering since the Emergency Law had been declared in 1981. The Emergency Law annuls all constitutional rights—any rights—under international conventions. The press is restricted, independent newspapers and television are banned, and all other newspapers are owned by the government. The police, security, and intelligence forces enforce this by regularly employing all kinds of torture. We had a very narrow space in which to operate. You can’t even talk about corruption. You can’t talk about the transition to democracy in Egypt, or the rigging of elections: not in a place where the government chooses not only the candidates running from the state party, but those of the opposition party as well!
There are now twenty thousand detainees in prison. They had no trial, and no charges have been pressed. Recurrent detention is widely resorted to. The emergency law gives the authorities (upon the approval of the minister of the interior) the right to detain someone without charge or trial for thirty days. But this often extends to six months or more, because the authorities have the right to reject the appeal of the detained person twice. Then, when the duration is over, another ministerial order is issued, keeping the detainee as long as the authorities wish. This amounts to endless detention.
Even when trials do take place, civilians are often referred to the military courts (and you can imagine the military courts). The latest case, involving over one hundred people from Albania, included four thousand pages of documents, and the defense was given only one week to prepare for the hearing. In most cases the outcome is predetermined. Military trials continue to be a source of serious concern for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights due to the absence of any constitutional or international guarantees for a fair and a just trial. These trials demonstrate the lack of independence of the judiciary system in Egypt. There is another issue that represents an enormous challenge: securing respect for women’s rights. Fewer than 2 percent of parliamentarians are women, and those are ap-pointed by the state. Our group works with the UN Commission for Human Rights, which condemns the abuses in Egypt. Their support helps, though we know that we will have to pay the cost of this struggle. Look at what happened to me: I went to prison for writing about the torture of the Copts. The government didn’t accept our report documenting the abuses so they targeted our organization. But what I wrote are facts. Hundreds of people were arrested. Hundreds were tortured at the police stations. We couldn’t remain silent and call ourselves human rights defenders. So we published this report and then the government accused me of spying for a foreign country, Britain. They accused me of receiving money from the British Embassy to make the report. This indictment is still pending—I am out on five hundred dollars bail.
While I was under investigation, they asked me if I was responsible for managing everything here at the Human Rights Organization. I told them I was. The investigators didn’t believe me, saying, "No, the president shares responsibility with you." I told them that publishing the report was my decision alone. I was responsible for everything. I wrote the report, I read it, I reviewed it, and I decided to publish it and issue it in a newspaper—to uphold human rights. I personally sent it to all news agents. Sure, if I had told the investigators that I was not responsible, they might not have arrested me. But this is not my moral code. I felt I should take my responsibility and bear the consequences.
It may never come to trial but they have made it clear that if I write any more reports, they will restart the investigation and prosecute. But this is our job, as human rights advocates, to point the finger at government errors. If we don’t do this, who will? These are our rights; we should fight for them. No government recognizes rights without a struggle. Look at America’s Civil War, and the agony of Europe’s battles for democracy. We, too, must demand our rights. Winning a democracy will involve sacrifice. So far we haven’t paid heavily, or sacrificed ultimately. But we know that at some point, we’ll either pay or be forced to accept this corrupt regime. If we are not willing to sacrifice, then we cannot complain when we are thrown in jail without reason, without any charge, and without any due process. We can expect no better. Because the fact is that this government doesn’t respect the UN Conventions on Human Rights. They don’t respect the democratic system either. They want only to continue retaining sole political power.
I am not frightened. I think of the future, of my son. I face this challenge for him, for all our children, and for their future. If we don’t start now, the next generation will inherit our failure to bring about change.
My father and my mother always said, "Look at the facts and then make things right." When my father came to visit me in jail, he said: "Good or bad, your destiny is in the hands of God. God has planned whether you stay in prison or are released back to us. No one can change that." This encouraged me to always confront what I knew was wrong.
I know that the future will see an Egypt becoming more democratic, with respect for human rights. But this is a future if only the people demand their rights and they struggle. With mass communications, satellite dishes, and the internet, people cannot be kept in the dark any longer. And with the prosecution of Pinochet in Spain and Milosevic in Serbia before the International Criminal Court, those in power now know they will, someday, be held accountable for their wrongdoing. Things are in a state of change—there is no looking back.
My country has tremendous potential. It is rich in resources. We have the infrastructure of industrialization and a vast host of Egyptians abroad who work in the field of technology. If my countrymen believe that Egypt now respects human rights and that corruption is limited, they will invest. If we create a systems for transparency, for democratization, for accountability, and for tolerance, this will protect our country from any threat, fundamentalist or terrorist, domestic or foreign. I believe in our future—and I know it will be better than what it is now.
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)