“The legal profession is an independent profession. It participates with the judiciary in achieving justice and the rule of law, and ensuring the right to defense. It is practiced independently by lawyers, and lawyers of public sector and public business sector agencies and companies. While undertaking the right of defense before courts, all lawyers enjoy the guarantees and protection granted to them by law, which also apply to them before investigation and trial authorities. Except in cases of flagrante delicto, arresting or detaining lawyers while exercising their right of defense is prohibited. The foregoing is organized by law.”
Thus reads article 198 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014. However, it seems those are nothing but empty words.
What lawyers experience in reality contradicts article 198 in every sense, especially those who work on politically sensitive cases. They face police brutality, arrests, disqualification from the lawyers syndicate, enforced disappearances, travel bans, and confiscation of their money.
“The situation has become tragic,” said one human rights lawyer who preferred not to be named. “Many of my colleagues have been subjected to physical attacks by security personnel, and judges have the ability to intimidate lawyers and imprison them for trivial reasons.”
He himself had been accused by the Public Prosecution Office (PPO) after he claimed to have found shortcomings in a PPO investigation. Reason: his client stands accused in a political case.
“Instead of the Egyptian government respecting the basic principles regarding the role of lawyers, strengthening their independence, and achieving sufficient guarantees to protect them if their security is endangered as a result of performing their work, lawyers have become subject to threats, intimidation and prosecution,” concluded the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). Meanwhile the Egyptian parliament agreed to amend the provisions of the legal profession, such as prohibiting the detention or arrest of a lawyer while exercising the right of defense, except in cases of flagrante delicto (being caught red-handed). However, this contradicts the crises lawyers are facing and the difficulties they experience in the current work environment. As a result, the laws and constitution seem but ink on paper.
Joining a Terrorist Group
“The problem is that lawyers find themselves accused for the cases they are working on, as if the relationship between the lawyer and the accused is the link with a terrorist organization,” said Yasser Saad, general coordinator of the campaign to defend lawyers. “As the lawyer tries to defend his client, he finds himself accused of belonging to a terrorist group.”
That is what happened to human rights lawyer Osama Bayoumi, who appeared at the State Security Prosecution four days after he was subjected to enforced disappearance to find himself accused of joining a terrorist group and spreading fake news.
According to Saad, Bayoumi is by no means the only one who has been arrested recently.
“What we know is that six lawyers have been arrested, only one of whom was released, while others were forcibly disappeared,” he said. “The problem is that there is no clear information about the reason for the arrests. In 2013 we knew that the organized arrests of lawyers were related to their affiliation with the Brotherhood. But now all lawyers are in the crosshairs of the security forces, regardless of their political background or ideas.”
One of them is human rights lawyer Mohamed el-Baker, who was arrested inside the courthouse on September 29, 2019, while he attended his client, political activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, being interrogated. Baker joined his colleagues in prison.The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in October 2019 expressed grave concern about the widespread arrests of human rights defenders, including Mohamed el-Baker. In the same month, the European Union condemned Egypt’s use of arbitrary pre-trial detention against Mohamed El-Baker and other human rights defenders.
The authorities effectively circumvent the pre-trial detention maximum period through the practice of “rotation.” According to the MENA Rights Group (MRG), this occurs when an individual who (i) is serving a sentence, (ii) is in pre-trial detention, (iii) has recently completed a sentence, or (iv) has recently been ordered released from pre-trial detention, is questioned and detained in relation to a new case.
“Accordingly, with every new case the pre-trial detention period begins anew, contributing to a situation in which an individual could be kept in pre-trial detention de facto indefinitely, so long as they are ordered detained in new cases,” MRG wrote on December 14, 2021.
Take the case of Human rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, founder of the Association of Families of the Forcibly Disappeared. He is one of the lawyers who has been imprisoned the longest. At the moment of writing, Metwally spent 51 months in pretrial detention in three different cases, none of which have ever been referred to court.
According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, Metwally was arrested at Cairo International Airport on September 10, 2018, before boarding a plane to Geneva, to attend a meeting at the United Nations.
Two days later, he was brought before the Supreme State Security Prosecution, which imprisoned him for 15 days pending investigation in Case No. 970 of 2017 after accusations were brought against him, most notably: establishing an illegal organization, conspiring with foreign entities to harm state security and publishing data and false information.
On September 12, 2019, Metwally completed two years of pre-trial detention pending investigation in Case No. 970, which is the maximum period of time for pre-trial detention according to the Egyptian Code of Criminal Procedure.
This meant Metwally had to be released. However, he was kept in illegal detention for another month before State Security Prosecution decided to release him on December 14, 2019. Yet, that never happened.
During the completion of the release procedures, on November 5, 2019, Metwally’s family and lawyer were shocked to see he was again brought before Supreme State Security Prosecution in case No. 1470 of 2019, which saw him charged with the same accusations as in the first case and imprisoned in pre-trial for 15 days. Ten months later, the First Circuit of the Criminal Court on August 25, 2020, decided to release him. But the Ministry of Interior, for the second time, refrained from implementing the decision. On September 6, 2020, decided to rotate Metwally for the second time, as he was charged in a third case, No. 786 of 2020.
The Bar Shines in Absence
“Since 2015, the Egyptian Bar Association has been weak and has shown neglect in defending lawyers,” said Yasser Saad. “The syndicate does interfere in lawyers’ cases, but ineffectively. It can do much more, such as negotiating with the state in a political way.”
“Colleague lawyers who do not work in civil society organizations and who have offices in different governorates avoid defending political cases because it may harm them, as has already happened to so many others,” Saad added.According to him, there is no confirmed figure regarding the detained lawyers in Egypt, but the Campaign to Defend Lawyers estimates it may amount to 1,000.
Repression at Home, Honor Abroad
Due to the repression lawyers are subjected to, their work has become a heroic act in the eyes of many. Hence, the 2020 Award of European Bars Associations (CCBE) went to 7 Egyptian lawyers, 6 of whom are still in prison: “Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, Ziad Al-Alimi, Haitham Mohamadin, Mohamed Al-Baker, Hoda Abdel-Moneim, Mohamed Ramadan, and Mahinour Al-Masry, who was recently released.”
The CCBE, which has over one million members in 32 European countries, has been offering the award since 2007 to honor lawyers and human rights organizations for their outstanding work and commitment to human rights.Thus, oppressed and imprisoned at home, Egyptian lawyers are hailed as heroes abroad.