Egypt violates international law by imprisoning blogger, says UN body

Egypt violates international law by imprisoning blogger, says UN body

Blogger Karim Amer’s imprisonment is a violation of international law, United Nations experts have concluded.

Amnesty International released a statement Monday sent to it by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a special procedure body of the UN’s Human Rights Council.

The Working Group concludes that Amer’s deprivation of liberty constitutes arbitrary detention because the blogger was “condemned for his online criticism and for the exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

“The decision of the Working Group is a welcome warning to the Egyptian authorities not to hide behind defamation of religion or insults to heads of state as a way to curb freedom of expression,” Amnesty International says in its statement.

In February 2007 Amer received a four-year imprisonment sentence after being convicted of charges including defaming the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and inciting hatred of Islam.

Amer’s imprisonment for statements made online is the first time Egypt has jailed a blogger. The Working Group was notified about the case in a communication sent to it in 2007.

Amer’s lawyers have alleged on several occasions that their client has been subject to mistreatment inside prison.

These accusations — including that Amer was on one occasion kept in solitary confinement for 65 days, and that in October 2007 he was punched and kicked by a prison guard and a prisoner acting under the supervision of a prison investigations officer — are denied by the Egyptian government in a response sent to the Working Group.

The government rejects suggestions that the charge of defaming the President on which Amer was convicted violates international law, and distinguishes between “responsible and proper media and newspaper coverage based on facts and information” and “use of the right to expression in order to harm the honor and reputation of other[s]”.

The government also invokes the idea of “special duties and responsibilities in the exercise of freedom of expression” to defend Amer”s conviction of insulting Islam. It suggests that the restrictions are necessary to “protect freedom of belief and avoid inciting hatred and discrimination against a group of people”.

Both arguments are rejected by the Working Group which says that the duty under international law to protect individuals against attacks on their honor and reputation does not mean that violation of this tenet should be deemed a criminal offence, nor that it should be punished by a penal sanction.

A penal sanction is “particularly inappropriate”, where the victim of the alleged defamation is a public figure because, “public officials should tolerate more criticism than private individuals,” the Working Groups says.

“Such criminal laws have an inhibiting effect on the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” the Working Group statement reads.

“Imprisonment terms for bloggers convicted of defaming or insulting state authorities is disproportionate and seriously affects freedom of opinion and expression.”

The UN body also dismisses Egypt”s contention that limitations on freedom of expression are necessary to protect freedom of belief.

“There is no contradiction between freedom of opinion and freedom of religion. They are mutually reinforcing … Certain beliefs cannot limit the right of the persons with other beliefs or different opinions to express their ideas and views,” the Working Group statement reads.

“Defamation of religions may offend people and hurt their feelings but it does not directly result in a violation of the right to freedom of religion.”

Egypt, whose term at the UN Human Rights Council expires next year, will have its human rights record assessed in 2010 under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism.

The review, carried out by Human Rights Council member states, is based in part on a compilation of UN information including the Working Group decision.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International, suggests that the decision may have implications for this review.

“As Egypt is coming up for review before the Human Rights Council and will have its record examined by fellow states, can Egypt afford to disregard the decisions of the human rights experts of the very same body examining its record?” Hadj Sahraoui told Daily News Egypt.

“This decision on Amer is also key as Egypt has been very active in promoting a resolution on defamation of religions, and trying to inject language on defamation of religion in the resolution on freedom of expression. These initiatives were simply ways to further limit freedom of expression,” she continued.

“The Working Group decision is so unequivocal that it would be hard for Egypt to continue with its undermining tactics at the Human Rights Council.

We also hope that in line with the findings Egypt will amend its legislation to decriminalize defamation.”