Committee Against Torture’s inquiry highlights systematic torture in Egypt: Interview with local human rights defender Mohamed Lofty

Mohamed Lofty photoIn accordance with Article 20 of the United Nations Convention, the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) can initiate a confidential inquiry if it receives “reliable information which appears to it to contain well-founded indications that torture is being systematically practiced in the territory of a State Party”. In the framework of this procedure, after having requested to conduct a visit in Egypt and without a positive answer from the State party, the CAT decided in November 2014 to proceed with its confidential inquiry without a visit.

 

On the 23rd of June 2017, the CAT published its summary account of the results of the proceedings of the inquiry on Egypt. The report highlights the systematic and widespread practice of torture in Egypt. Experts made urgent recommendations to the State party, such as the immediate end of the practice of torture, the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy, and the prosecution of perpetrators of torture. Sadly Egypt said allegations of torture were based on hearsay and lacked supporting evidence and that the CAT should not have concluded that Egypt was engaging in systematic torture. While Egypt accepted many of the Committee’s recommendations and said that they were already being implemented and that several others had been partly accepted or noted, it rejected recommendations that are vital to the prevention and protection against torture in Egypt.

 

Mohamed Lofty, an Egyptian and Swiss bi-national, is the Executive Director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. A prominent human rights defender in Egypt and the MENA region, he is also active advocating before the UN, European Union and other international mechanisms. He holds and advanced degree in political science and has worked as a researcher for Amnesty International.

 

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT): How important is such an inquiry for Egypt?

 

Mohamed LOFTY (ML): The findings of the CAT are very effective for the Egyptian human rights community, in the sense that an independent body asserts that torture and ill-treatment constitute a systematic practice in Egypt. This is what Human Rights Defenders have been saying over 20 years. So the Committee has given us reason. We are proud of the recommendations of the CAT; however, we are much more upset about the reaction of the Government, which is unwilling to implement most of the recommendations.

 

OMCT: When were you informed about the inquiry and what was your organization’s involvement?

 

ML: We knew from sources and friends that the CAT initiated an inquiry, but quite late. Regarding the involvement of our organization, we published information about torture cases, such as torture in prisons, torture by national security and the military –especially in the framework of enforced disappearances. So hopefully the Committee took this information into account.

 

OMCT: In accordance to the inquiry procedure, the CAT requested the Egyptian Government to allow a visit in order to assess the situation. However, the government refused to cooperate, and the CAT proceeded the confidential inquiry without a visit. How would you explain the lack of cooperation from the Egyptian government with the CAT?

 

ML: The Egyptian Government could have invited the UNCAT to visit Egypt, it could have provided answers and been able to soften the language of the Committee in its Conclusions and Recommendations. But the attitude of the Government towards the UN human rights mechanisms is generally despising, and it generally tries to undermine them. The reason is that the Egyptian Government feels that the (CAT members) listen too much human rights organizations. Even if Egypt has ratified most of the UN instruments, it is just for the show.

 

OMCT: Egypt rejected the following recommendations made by the CAT “ to immediately end the use of incommunicado detention; create an independent authority to investigate allegations of torture, enforced disappearance and ill-treatment; restrict the jurisdiction of the military courts to offences of an exclusively military nature; and enforce the prohibition against “virginity tests” and end the practice of forensic anal examinations for those accused of crimes.”

How would you explain the rejection of those recommendations by the Egyptian Government?

 

ML: I think the Egyptian Government rejected the UNCAT’s Recommendations because it does not see them as binding. The Government also feels safe because some UN Member States would always have interest for Egypt from an economical, political or diplomatic viewpoint. This is even truer in the Human Rights Council. Unfortunately, despotic countries are ganging up on the UN – and the Human Rights Council – and Egypt is one of the gang leaders.

 

 

OMCT: This is the second inquiry procedure in Egypt carried out by the CAT. The first one took place in the nineties, with the CAT publishing its summary of the inquiry in 1996. Do you know how the Egyptian Government reacted at that time and if any of the recommendations were taken seriously and implemented?

 

ML: The Government has reacted quite negatively to the first inquiry too. However, Mubarak’s Government had a more diplomatic discourse than President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s (who h as been in place since 19 November 2014).

 

OMCT: What kind of activities should the different stakeholders undertake in order to ensure implementation of the CAT recommendations issued to Egypt?

 

ML: As NGOs, we must use those recommendations in order to highlight, in front of different actors and bodies, that we are not exaggerated the phenomenon of torture in Egypt. We should add these recommendations in our future reports, in our advocacy activities, during the meetings with government officials, international NGOs or other governments.

 

OMCT: In Egypt, perpetrators of torture almost universally enjoy impunity, although Egyptian law prohibits and creates accountability mechanisms for torture and related practices. How would you explain the serious dissonance between law and practice?

 

ML: The Egyptian law is clear: torture is absolutely prohibited and there is no statute of limitations. However, the definition of torture is imperfect: torture is only criminalized when it is practiced to extract a confession; it would only be considered as degrading treatment if it is practiced in order to punish, threaten or intimidate someone. Public officers who commit torture get small sentences or are released on bail. Once they are released, they are generally reinstated in their previous position. The Government supports its officers, and prosecutors are reluctant to investigate torture cases. Moreover, it is really difficult for victims to prove – even if there is a medical report ­– that they have been subjected to torture: they do not know who tortured them, and are not able to complain if marks of torture have disappeared from their bodies.

 

OMCT: As a Human Rights Defender, you are at risk to be subjected to arbitrary arrests and torture. Do you fear for your life?

 

ML: Of course, any human rights defender in Egypt fears for his/her life. Recently the lawyer Ibrahim Metwaly Hegazy, Co-founder and Coordinator of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, was arrested in Cairo airport while he was travelling to Geneva in response to an invitation by the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. He disappeared for two days and was subjected to torture, including electroshocks. He is suspected of founding and leading an organization that was created illegally, spreading false news and communicating with foreign entities in order to undermine national security. A few days ago, our organization’s offices were also searched without a warrant. Officials wanted to close down our offices, but our lawyer could counter it. Our offices can be closed at any time. That shows how dangerous it is to work in the field of human rights in Egypt. But we keep fighting.

 

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