This week the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention published its decision in the case of Mahmoud Hussein, a prominent journalist who works for Al Jazeera Media Network in Qatar and is represented by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. The Working Group determined that Mr. Hussein has been arbitrarily detained without charge in Egypt since December 2016. Based on the petition submitted by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Working Group found that the Egyptian authorities’ imprisonment of Mahmoud Hussein—including 89 days of solitary confinement—violated the journalist’s due-process rights and amounted to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Recognizing that journalists warrant heightened protections where their freedom of expression is restricted, the Working Group called on Egypt to immediately release Mahmoud Hussein and to amend its laws and practices to conform with its international human rights obligations.
Read the full decision by the Working Group here.
Prior to his detention, Mahmoud Hussein, an acclaimed journalist and Egyptian national, worked as a news editor for Al Jazeera’s Arabic TV channel, based in Doha and covering the European region. Hussein traveled regularly to Egypt to spend time with his family, including his nine children. In December 2016, Egyptian authorities stopped Hussein at Cairo International Airport, interrogated him, and detained him for more than 15 hours. Days later, Egyptian authorities seized Hussein outside his home and took him into custody without a warrant. Hussein was forced to record a series of “confession” videos, detained incommunicado for two weeks, and placed in prolonged solitary confinement in the notorious Tora Prison.
Egyptian authorities interfered with Hussein’s efforts to fight for his liberty, denying him adequate access to his lawyer and case file. Hussein endured a cramped, dark cell where he was held alone for three months with no ventilation or electricity, exposed to insect infestations and squalid conditions. After he was transferred out of solitary confinement, Hussein fractured his arm in June 2017. Egyptian authorities prevented him from accessing critical medical services for the injury, which became infected. The impact of Hussein’s indefinite detention on his physical and psychological health has been severe. And his family has suffered alongside him, first terrorized by security forces at the time of his arrest and now fighting for his release. For more than a year, Egyptian authorities have refused to pursue charges against Hussein and denied him a meaningful opportunity to appeal his detention.
In April 2017, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights filed an urgent petition to the Working Group on Hussein’s behalf, arguing that Hussein’s arbitrary arrest and detention violated Egypt’s international human rights obligations. This week’s decision by the Working Group confirmed that Hussein was targeted for his role as a journalist. The Working Group criticized Egypt’s overly broad and vague laws on pre-trial detention, and noted that Hussein’s prolonged detention without trial “appears to be part of the Government’s widespread crackdown on the independent media and bloggers for political opinions at odds with its own.” Further, the Working Group expressed grave concern about the pattern of arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance perpetrated by the Ministry of Interior’s Homeland Security Agency, which had been involved in Hussein’s arrest, interrogation, and forced confessions.
The Egyptian government—which ranked in the top three jailers of journalists in 2017, alongside Turkey and China—has amplified its crackdown on the press by accusing reporters of disseminating “false news,” blocking websites, and putting journalists on terrorist watch lists. Hussein had worked for the Cairo bureau of Al Jazeera from the end of 2010 until mid-2013, when Egyptian authorities shut down the bureau and prosecuted a number of his colleagues. This severe censorship of journalists comes at a time when civil society organizations throughout Egypt are facing unprecedented obstacles to carrying out their legitimate work. An exceptionally repressive law passed in May 2017 criminalizes the work of independent NGOs.
Prominent activists caught up in Egypt’s crackdown include Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American NGO worker who supported street children in Cairo and was held in pre-trial detention on spurious charges for almost three years, until Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights intervened and helped to secure her liberty. In this context, Hussein’s arbitrary detention is far from an isolated case; the Egyptian authorities’ tactic of using indefinite pre-trial detention to restrain those who dare to act independently is a cornerstone of its repression of the press, civil society, and protestors. The Working Group’s decision in Hussein’s case is an important step in holding the Egyptian government accountable for these widespread human rights violations.