CHRLA: The first six months

A report of the first six months' activities of CHRLA, the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid, published in Cairo 1995.


CHRLA's work, CHRLA's legal activities

Examples of CHRLA cases

CHRLA's publication and educational activities, Workshops

Documentation and information unit

Relations with other Egyptian human rights organizations, CHRLA international activities


Introduction: Challenges and achievements

Over the past six months the human rights movement in Egypt has faced growing challenges. Restrictions on freedom of expression, opinion, and association have tightened, and the government's campaign against human rights organizations has reached unprecedented levels. Founded in January 1995, the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA) has joined the local movement at a crucial juncture for human rights in Egypt and has been able to make an important impact during its short existence. With its dual strategy of providing legal representation for victims of human rights abuses while educating the population on human rights issues, the organization has witnessed significant results on the ground. Meanwhile, In conjunction with other local human rights organizations, CHRLA has been active in the first few months of its existence on several fronts in pursuit of human rights in Egypt. The Center's main focus has been on recent events with regard to new government legislation, judicial rulings as well as the government's campaign against the human rights movement. These are outlined in detail below:

Legislation

On the legislative front, amendments to the Syndicates Law in February 1995 have further expanded the government's power to place professional associations under government control, while amendments to the Press Law (May 1995) allow for preventive detention of journalists, mandatory prison terms, and heavy fines for publishing articles which are damaging to the reputation of government officials or which have the effect of "disturbing the peace" or "instilling hatred of national institutions." CHRLA has published a legal critique of the Press Law, available in English and Arabic, and has invited members of the Press Syndicate Council and prominent lawyers to participate in a workshop for the purpose of drafting a new law which the Syndicate will propose in September when Parliament meets.

Judicial rulings

Regarding judicial decisions, there have been three important rulings regarding freedom of opinion and association. Two of the rulings are hisba cases-based on the claim that Islamic law allows for any Muslim to bring a legal case on behalf of the community, regardless if he/she meets the legal requirement of having a direct interest in the case. The ruling against Cairo University Professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, which ordered his divorce on the grounds that his academic writings show he is an apostate and, therefore, cannot remain married to his Muslim wife, is the most dangerous of these cases, as it amounts to state-supported excommunication. Unofficial accusations of apostasy resulted in the 1992 assassination of secular intellectual Farag Foda and the 1994 attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfuz. Abu Zayd initially won his case when the court ruled that the plaintiffs had no right to raise a suit against him. In June, however, an appeals court reversed the ruling and ordered Abu Zayd's divorce. CHRLA is participating in preparations for the final appeal, which will be filed in July, and has called for the formation of a national Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Thought and Belief, which now has its headquarters in the Center's offices. CHRLA has also written a legal critique of the ruling, available in both Englishand Arabic.

CHRLA provided legal defense in a second hisba case against film-maker Yusif Chahine. The plaintiffs called for the banning of Chahine's film "The Emigrant" (al-Muhajir), claiming that its main character, Ram, is in fact intended to be the prophet Joseph, and that the portrayal is unacceptable. Chahine has stated that the character is largely based on experiences from his own life and is not intended to be a portrayal of Joseph. In this case, the court ruled against banning the film, arguing that hisba cases are not permissible.

A third ruling concerned rules regarding membership in professional syndicates and factory council elections. The Constitutional High Court ruled that the twenty-percent ceiling on "professional" workers' participation in syndicate administrative councils was unconstitutional because it is anti-democratic; it violates guarantees of freedom of opinion and association, the right to nominate and vote, and the principle of equality under the law; as well as principles of the International Labor Organization Agreements to which Egypt is a signatory. The factory-level administrative councils are at the base of the syndicate pyramid, and human rights activists hope to use this ruling to challenge restrictions on labor organizing. CHRLA is cooperating with the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services in Helwan to bring cases affected by this ruling to court.

The campaign against human rights organizations

In January, the Ministry of Justice issued an administrative opinion stating that "civil companies"-the title under which almost all Egyptian human rights and development organizations are registered- must either pay taxes or register as associations under the infamous Law 32, which grants the government sweeping powers to confiscate assets and appoint the governing boards of associations. This ruling is part of an ongoing effort to extend government control over the human rights movement. The government has also pressured foreign governments to prevent groups operating within their countries from funding Egyptian human rights organizations. It has also sought to create new procedures which would channel all funding through the Ministry of Social Affairs. The government began a press campaign which has sought to portray Egypt's human rights organizations as "spies" for foreign interests, terming their reports on abuses as "lies" intended to destroy the nation's integrity. On one recent occasion, the government banned a planned training session on the use of video cameras in human rights work, organized by The Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights.

Despite these pressures, CHRLA remains optimistic about the future of human rights in Egypt. The widespread popular rejection of the Press Law and Syndicates Law is proof that there is a foundation on which to build in organizing people on issues of freedom of expression and freedom of association. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court ruling on syndicate elections opens new ground for challenging the anti-democratic structure of the existing syndicate organization. The rulings in the Chahine and Abu Zayd cases are an unfortunate setback, but here, too, we have hopes of achieving change, on the one hand by using them as a means to pressure the government to clarify its position on the role of Islamic jurisprudence in matters affecting civil rights, and on the other hand, by using the opportunity to increase awareness of the importance of freedom of opinion and expression.

Our recent efforts have had some very positive results in that Egypt's human rights movement has been forced to become a more cohesive entity, working together in greater cooperation, as was exhibited by the decision in May to develop an "honor agreement" among different organizations. The agreement outlined specific ways to enhance cooperation among human rights groups as well as ways to further democratic procedures in internal management. The head of the CHRLA Legal Unit, Nasr Amin, was recently elected to the Board of Trustees of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and the Center has become an important meeting place for intellectuals, artists, university professors, and lawyers for discussion on human rights issues they face in their professional lives.

Finally, CHRLA has seen a tremendous expansion in its case-work. As the organization's reputation has grown, more people have become aware that many of the abuses they suffer can be challenged legally. In the last six months, CHRLA has accepted 410 legal cases and complaints, involving 420 legal actions raised on behalf of 451 individuals. It has also created a Documentation and Information Unit. Details of the Center's work are outlined in the following pages.


Introduction | Work, activities | Cases | Publications, workshops | Information unit | International

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