Detention and disappearance of Egyptian human rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy

Published: 07 November 2017 Author: Stefan Talmon

On 3 July 2013, the Egyptian military removed democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi from power and suspended the constitution. Since the military takeover of government and the assumption of the presidency by Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a year later, Egypt has seen a large-scale crackdown on dissent and the followers of former president Morsi. According to media reports hundreds have been killed, tens of thousands have been detained, and many have been forcibly disappeared.

In response to his own son vanishing in 2013, Egyptian lawyer Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy co-founded the Association of the Families of the Disappeared in Egypt. He also assisted the family of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student who was found tortured and killed in Cairo in February 2016.

On 10 September 2017, Mr. Metwally Hegazy disappeared at Cairo International Airport before boarding a flight to Geneva, where he was to report on enforced disappearances in Egypt at the invitation of the United Nation Human Right’s Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. He reappeared two days later before the High State Security Prosecutor being charged with founding and leading an organization that was created illegally, spreading false news, and communicating with foreign entities in order to undermine national security. He has since been detained in the high-security wing of Egypt’s notorious Tora prison.

On 14 September 2017, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office issued the following statement on the arrest of Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy: 

“I am very concerned about the disappearance and subsequent arrest of human rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy by the Egyptian authorities. At the time of his arrest, Mr Hegazy was travelling to Geneva, where he was to report, at the invitation of a United Nations committee, on forced disappearances in Egypt.

The arbitrary arrests of people by organs of the state, without information being provided on their fate or location, deprives those detained of the protection of the law. It is not acceptable that the Egyptian authorities prevent people who campaign for others’ human rights to be upheld from doing their work by causing them to disappear, carrying out arbitrary arrests, imposing travel bans, freezing bank accounts, blocking websites, intimidating them or using other forms of repression.

Respect for human rights and a free civil society are basic prerequisites for social harmony and lasting stability, and also the best defence against radicalisation and extremism.

I call on the Egyptian authorities to release Mr Hegazy and to create conditions in Egypt in which human rights defenders and other members of civil society can do their work unhindered – work that is important for the Country.”

A few days later, during the 36th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Germany addressed the situation of human rights in Egypt in general, and the situation of Mr. Metwally Hegazy in particular. The German representative said:

“Recognizing the challenges Egypt is facing, Germany nonetheless remains seriously concerned about its human rights situation. Under the guise of countering terrorism, the repression against and systematic silencing of civil society is increasing, inter alia through arbitrary detention, travel bans, asset freezes, black-listing, intimidation and the blocking of websites. Germany is deeply concerned about the growing number of reported cases of torture in detention, enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings.”

“State strategies to use reprisals to prevent individuals from providing information to the United Nations are alarming. […] This undermines the trust in the United Nations and harms the functioning of the UN system as a whole and in particular the human rights mechanisms. […] In this context, we note with deep concern that only recently Egyptian authorities detained the lawyer Mr. Ebrahim Metwally Hegazy to prevent him from travelling to a session of the UN working group on enforced disappearances.”

On 3 November 2017, Germany, together with Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, issued a statement on the ongoing detention of Mr. Metwally Hegazy which read:

“Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are deeply concerned at the ongoing detention of human rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, who was detained at Cairo airport on September 10th on his way to the UN Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances working group.

We are concerned at the detention conditions that Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy is reportedly enduring, and continue to call for transparency on prison conditions in Egypt. We call on the Egyptian authorities to ensure the freedom of civil society and the protection from torture that are enshrined in the Egyptian Constitution.”

The Egyptian Government’s response was swift. On 5 November the Assistant Foreign Minister for European Affairs summoned the ambassadors of Germany, Italy and the Netherlands to present an official protest against a statement released by the three countries. The Assistant Foreign Minister condemned what were perceived as fallacies in the statement, calling on the ambassadors to seek accuracy in reporting the legal position of Mr. Metwally Hegazy, who was not a detainee but rather was being held pending investigations conducted by the general prosecution. A statement released by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry on the same day read as follows:

“Egypt is strongly dissatisfied with the blatant and unacceptable interference in its internal affairs and in the work of the judiciary. It is unfortunate that such a statement would be issued from countries that call for respecting [the] rule of law and the principle of separation of powers.”

While Egypt, unlike Germany, is not a party to the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, it is not at liberty to subject persons to enforced disappearances. The right not to be subjected to enforced disappearances is a general human right. The 2006 Convention goes beyond this Aright of any person@ by specifying certain additional obligations of States following from this right.

Germany’s statements show that human rights such as the right not to be subjected to enforced disappearances and torture are no longer a purely “internal affair”. As the International Court of Justice pointed out in the Barcelona Traction case, “the principles and rules concerning the basic rights of the human person” give rise to obligations towards the international community as a whole. By their very nature these obligations are the concern of all States. The Court continued: “In view of the importance of the rights involved, all States can be held to have a legal interest in their protection; they are obligations erga omnes.” Any State is entitled to invoke the responsibility of another State violating such obligations erga omnes. The right to invoke the responsibility of other States also includes the right to claim from other States the cessation of certain human rights violations and the performance of their obligations under the relevant international human rights treaties and customary international law.

Category: Human rights

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  • Stefan Talmon

    Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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