11.10.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Detention of Hossam Bahgat

[On Monday, November 9, a statement by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on the detention of Egyptian journalist and human rights defender Hossam Bahgat, and on the continuing attacks on freedom of expression in Egypt, was published in the Congressional Record.   Upon learning of Bahgat’s release earlier today (Tuesday), Leahy said:  “I am pleased that the Egyptian government has decided not to proceed with its attempt to silence Hossam Bahgat.  I hope this is a sign that the government recognizes it has a responsibility to protect the fundamental right of its citizens to access to a free press.”  Senator Leahy’s Monday statement is below.]

Mr. President, there is no right that is more fundamental to a democracy than freedom of expression.  When this right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is threatened or curtailed, dictatorship is the predictable result.  Regrettably, that is what we see happening in Egypt today.

Like others here I received word this morning that Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian journalist and one of that country’s prominent human rights defenders, has been detained and may be charged in military court.  He is apparently accused of publishing false news related to an article about an allegedly foiled military coup.

According to information I have received, an October 13th article by Mr. Bahgat described the military prosecution of 26 officers and two Muslim Brotherhood members for allegedly planning to overthrow the government.  The next day, the same publication printed the article in English under the title “A coup busted?”  For this, Mr. Bahgat is being investigated by military prosecutors and could face one or more years behind bars.

According to Mr. Bahgat’s article which was based on the indictment in that case, authorities had summoned or arrested most of the defendants in April.  Some of the detained officers alleged that they were tortured during interrogations inside military intelligence headquarters.  Eight of the officers and the two Muslim Brotherhood leaders who were prosecuted in absentia were sentenced to life in prison, Mr. Bahgat reported.  The rest were sentenced to between 10 and 15 years.

Lawyers for Mr. Bahgat have reported that military prosecutors are investigating him for allegedly violating articles 102 and 188 of the penal code, both of which are minor, vaguely worded offenses that concern the publication of false news.

Article 102 allows the prosecution of anyone who “intentionally broadcasts false or tendentious news, data, or rumors, or propagates subversive propaganda, if this is liable to disturb the public security, spread terror among the people, or harm the public interest.”  It provides for an undefined period of detention and a fine of up to 200 Egyptian pounds (US$25).

Article 188 allows prosecution of anyone who “with ill intent publishes false news, data, or rumors, or forged or fabricated papers, or falsely attributed to others, if this is liable to disturb the general peace or provoke panic among the people or harm the public interest.”  It provides for detention of up to one year and a fine of up to 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$2,490).

According to Human Rights Watch, Mr. Bahgat was not the first journalist to report on the alleged military coup.  In a statement, Mr. Bahgat’s lawyers stated that he had no criminal intent and that other media outlets had previously reported the verdict.

It is well established that civilians should not be prosecuted in military courts, yet that is what is happening to Mr. Bahgat.  In October 2014, President al-Sisi greatly expanded military court jurisdiction for a period of two years, allowing the military prosecution of civilians for crimes that occur on “public” or “vital” property.  Since then, Egyptian media outlets and human rights groups have reported that thousands of civilians have been charged in military courts, many of them for acts related to protesting and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s military courts operate under the authority of the Ministry of Defense, not civilian judicial authorities.  According to human rights groups, they typically deny defendants the rights accorded by civilian courts, including to be informed of the charges against them, the right to a lawyer, and to be brought promptly before a judge following arrest.  This is particularly concerning given the pattern of abuse of detainees in Egypt.

Mr. President, as a former prosecutor who has served as both chairman and ranking member of our Judiciary Committee, I have spoken many times about the importance of an independent judiciary.  Nowhere is this needed more today than in Egypt, where sham trials, some lasting only a few minutes, followed by sentences of death or life in prison, are common.

I hope the Egyptian Government will see the wisdom of proceeding no further in its attempt to silence reputable journalists like Mr. Bahgat.  Sometimes the news is favorable, sometimes it is unfavorable.  That is the way life is, and it is not for government officials – whether elected or unelected – to decide what their citizens should read.

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