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Egypt: A Few Odd Pardons Won’t Do Justice

The October 6 anniversary went by, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior released over 300 prisoners. Another feast, another batch of detainees pardoned by the state as per tradition. A palliative measure that provides little camouflage to the unchanged malaise in Egypt’s purpose of justice, nor it sends a convincing message abroad.

A total of 331 detainees were released in commemoration of this year’s anniversary of 6 October war. Last month on the occasion of Eid el-Adha, around 100 detainees were freed under a presidential decree. Earlier in July, Sisi pardoned hundreds of prisoners on the occasion of Eid el-Fitr which marks the end of Ramadan.

Those pardoned on 6 October were non-political detainees, all charged with debt issues. Instead, most of those released on Eid el-Adha had been convicted under the protest law or on politically motivated charges. Among them were two Al Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, as well as human rights defenders Sanaa Seif and Yara Sallam along with other activists incarcerated for protesting near Ittihadiya presidential palace and the Shura Council in 2014.

A show of grace for prisoners in Egypt usually comes in conjunction with official holidays and feasts. As much welcomed as these presidential pardons may be, they are nowhere close to solving the problem as long as unfair legislation is enforced, and freedom of expression goes repressed.

An inevitable thought goes to those who are left in jail. With what criteria some inmates are freed while others are excluded? What will be done about others imprisoned under the protest law? Are presidential pardons set to grant ad hoc amnesty, or additional steps will follow leading to a repeal of the law eventually?

As it stands, there’s no indication that the state’s stance on rights and liberties is going to be rethought. A pardon issued by the president once in a while will hardly point towards a change in the status quo unless it is accompanied by other measures attempting to review recent laws that restrict civil liberties, and end the repressive practices used against political parties, activists and the wider civil society.

If lawyer Amal Clooney naively believes that release of Mohamed Fahmy’s ‘’gives hope that things can change in Egypt’’, as she commented on her client’s pardon, one may ask how many more amnesties it will take before the Egyptian state puts itself on the path to justice.
Thousands remain in Egypt’s prisons as a result of forced disappearances, random arrests and faulty judicial procedures.

September’s pardon came just before El-Sisi’s trip to New York, where he attended the United Nations General Assembly, suggesting the timing was chosen to avoid global criticism of Egypt’s human rights record as critics say.

The two latest pardons come at a time where Egypt is also running for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. In this context, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry attempted to make a connection between Egypt’s campaign for the Security Council with the world’s appreciation for President Sisi. In other words, the expectation is that a UNSC seat going to Egypt will ratify international recognition of the current regime. And to achieve that, it’s important to convey a sound public image of country that acts in line with the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

That may however work ‘for the occasion’ amid jubilation and praise as Egypt’s president announces a prompt amnesty for another bunch of prisoners. Until things go back to normal, and that image given to the world fades away.

The bottom line is the protest law should be revoked altogether, and all those detained for violating this unjust law while participating in peaceful demonstrations should be released.

It would need to be replaced by a legal provision that regulates and safeguards the right to protest peacefully, in compliance with international standards.

Few days ago, a group of released prisoners, their families and lawyers reportedly vowed to form a united front to advocate for the release of all other political prisoners left behind. Among them, Alaa Abd Al Fattah, Ahmed Douma, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, as well as Mahienour al-Massry, photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (known as Shawkan) and student Mahmoud Hussein.

Any move of this kind indicates that not only occasional pardons are not enough -and the world shouldn’t be fooled by Sisi’s pardons in first place- but there’s a growing call for justice coming out of Egypt’s jails that may not be ignored for very long. More former detainees are speaking up in solidarity with their fellow inmates who remain unjustly detained, demanding significant reforms, and more of them are now uniting to speak louder.

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Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Between 2010 and 2011, she lived in Palestine. Her articles have appeared in the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, IRIN and The Majalla among others. She can be followed on Twitter at @AlessandraBajec

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