Egypt set to approve anti-terror law
July 6, 2015 | 4:47 PM
by Agencies

Cairo: Rattled by attacks on its soldiers and the assassination of the top prosecutor, Egypt is set to pass sweeping legislation critics say grants police impunity, censors media and further restricts freedoms.

President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is expected to approve the law this week, after pledging tough measures against militants who have bedevilled the country since the army's ouster of his predecessor Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

The former army chief has led an extensive crackdown on the hardline opposition and militants, vowing to eradicate Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement and militants.

But one year into Sisi's rule, his government was stunned by the assassination of state prosecutor Hisham Barakat on June 29.

Barakat's killing in a car bombing was followed by large-scale attacks on soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula, prompting the cabinet to rush through the law over the objections of rights groups.

"It's a disaster to see the state pass such a law in an atmosphere charged with calls for revenge," said Gamal Eid, a lawyer who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

Article 33 of the cabinet-approved draft law stipulates a minimum two-year prison sentence for anyone who reports casualty tolls from militant attacks that stray from government figures.

The law came partly in response to coverage of militant assaults on soldiers in the Sinai on July 1.

The military said 21 soldiers were killed in the attacks, after several media outlets reported higher tolls from security officials.

"This is a dangerous article that violates the constitution," the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate said in a statement.

"It violates the reporter's right to seek information from various sources... it allows the executive authorities to act as censors, and the judges of truth," it said.

Government officials say the wording of the provision requires proof of "intent" and "malice" when reporting figures that contradict official statements.

"The government has a duty to protect citizens from false information," Justice Minister Ahmed Al Zind told AFP, arguing that the law should not be seen as "a restriction on media freedoms".

The new legislation also appears to grant police and soldiers impunity when carrying out "anti-terrorism" operations, saying they cannot be held criminally liable for the use of force.

Hundreds of soldiers and policemen have been killed in militant attacks since Morsi's overthrow, while at least 1,400 people, mostly hardliners, have been killed in a police crackdown on protesters.

While policemen have largely been cleared of wrongdoing in the deadly crackdown, the law would grant them further protection from prosecution over abuses, critics say.

Legal expert and lawyer Shaaban Said said police officers were already protected from prosecution over acts of violence committed in self-defence.

"The fear is that this law could allow police officers to act excessively or use disproportionate force against suspects," he said.

The draft law stipulates death sentences for the founders and financiers of vaguely defined "terrorist" groups, and five-year prison terms for promoting "terrorism" on social media.

Egypt's courts have already sentenced hundreds of hardliners to death in swift mass trials, although most have won appeals. Seven people have been executed.

At Barakat's funeral, Sisi asserted that "the arm of justice is chained by the law".

"We're not going to wait five or 10 years to try the people killing us," he said, asking judges present to speed up the process.

The draft law would reduce the number of appeals allowed to defendants, and set up special terrorism courts to expedite their trials.

But a judiciary council has asked the government to reconsider the proposed use of special courts before Sisi passes the law, saying that criminal courts can handle such cases.

Egypt's military killed 241 militants in the Sinai from July 1-5, the army said on Monday, including militants from the IS group.

In figures released on Monday by the army spokesman on his Facebook page, the military said its forces killed 241 militants between July 1 and 5.

Four wanted militants and 29 suspected militants were also arrested.

Sixteen crude bombs were detonated, while 26 cars and 28 motorbikes belonging to militants were destroyed over the same period, the army said.

On Facebook, the army also posted photographs of dead militants, some even displayed on military tanks.

Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities have arrested 13 members of the Muslim Brotherhood on suspicion of planting bombs around the Suez Canal to disrupt shipping, security sources said on Monday.

The waterway, the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia, is a vital source of hard currency for Egypt, particularly since the 2011 uprising that toppled veteran leader Hosni Mubarak and scared off tourists and foreign investment.

The security sources said the men formed a 13-member cell that included an employee at the Suez Canal Authority.

Prosecutors had ordered that they be detained for 15 days and said they had planted bombs in areas including sanitation and electricity facilities as well as on beaches, they said.

No one at the prosecutors' office was immediately available to comment.

Last week Egyptian security forces stormed an apartment in a western Cairo suburb and killed nine men whom they said were armed, the interior ministry said.

Among the dead was a prominent lawyer for the Brotherhood and a former lawmaker. The Brotherhood denied that the men were armed and said they were holding an "organisational meeting".

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