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Egypt Levels Terror Charges against Peaceful Protesters

Coptic Christians among activists accused of ‘direct incitement against state’

[CAIRO] The arrest of Ramy Kamel, a 33-year-old-year-old Egyptian advocate for Coptic-Christian equality, is throwing a spotlight on the increasing use of anti-terror directives to isolate and imprison hundreds of civil activists and journalists that extends even to their followers on social media.

Kamel is facing terrorism-related charges after his arrest early Saturday during a police raid in his Cairo neighborhood of El Warraq Island. Authorities confiscated his library, laptop and mobile phone.

Eyewitnesses say the police refused to allow him to bring a change of clothes, carry his medications or speak to a lawyer before his interrogation by the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), which ordered him held for 15 days in pre-trial detention.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International published a report accusing the SSSP of “routinely misusing counter-terror legislation to prosecute thousands of peaceful critics and suspend guarantees to a fair trial.”

Egyptian authorities have detained more than 4,000 people over the past two months after an exiled contractor called for protests against austerity measures imposed by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and increased military domination over the economy.

Amnesty alleges that the SSSP has been investigating the vast majority of street demonstrations and online dissent by charging many suspects with crimes related to terrorism.

“The ‘crime’ of disturbing public peace and joining a terrorist group has become a sword over the necks of citizens,” Nabil Ghobrial, a lawyer for Kamel, told The Media Line.

“Accusations that he financed a terrorist group are illogical because Ramy is the only breadwinner supporting his family. And as for joining a terrorist group, they have yet to announce which group he joined… or [which] act he committed,” Ghobrial said.

Kamel himself spoke to The Media Line last December when he criticized proposed amendments to Egypt’s 2014 constitution that suspended term limits and will enable Sisi to remain in office until 2030.

The turnout rate for April’s constitutional referendum was only 44 percent. Still, authorities hailed an 88.83% approval rate for measures that included provisions enshrining a supervising role for the military in civil governance and expanding the president’s power over judicial appointments.

“Even government media confirmed that the 2014 constitution enshrining term limits was approved by 98% of Egyptians, and we understand that this arrangement represents the will of the people,” Kamel told The Media Line in December. “Any amendment means either the state was lying or Sisi is now maneuvering against the will of the people.”

Turmoil around Sisi at the highest levels of the state was the subject of an article published last week by “Mada Masr,” in independent online news outlet widely considered the last bastion of independent media in the country.

Mada Masr’s investigative report detailed personnel changes inside the intelligence services, prompting the state prosecutor to associate the liberal website with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which for years has been labeled a terrorist organization by authorities.

The piece was widely shared on social media as it contained information about the recent reassignment of Mahmoud el-Sisi, the president’s eldest son, from an influential post in the General Intelligence Service to a “training” appointment as Cairo’s military attaché in Moscow.

According to Mada, the younger Sisi “failed to handle a number of his responsibilities properly… and is having a negative impact on his father’s image.”

After publication, authorities raided the website’s office. They detained four of its journalists, including editors Lina Attalah, Mohamed Hamama and Shady Zalat, and reporter Rana Mamdouh.

Officials have blasted international coverage of the arrests, especially reporting about the crackdown on journalists.

“There are no restrictions imposed on freedom of opinion and expression in Egypt unless it involves direct incitement against state institutions,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez said. “The judiciary is the sole competent authority when it comes to addressing the various cases referred to it in this regard, stressing that all the accused enjoy the necessary rights and guarantees to defend themselves.”

The Mada Masr employees were released from custody Sunday after high-level intervention by Western embassies and a statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Nevertheless, authorities are pressing ahead with a massive wave of detentions.

State Security arrested another Coptic Christian, 42-year-old union organizer Khalil Rizk Khalil, accusing him of “joining a terrorist group,” publishing “false news and rumors” and using an account on the internet for this purpose after publishing pay hike demands by workers at a government-controlled pharmaceutical company.

According to Khalil’s lawyer, prosecutors have refused to share details of the charges against him in Case 1475, an ongoing file maintained by State Security involving multiple defendants charged with participating in a violent anti-state conspiracy.

“Egyptian authorities have sought to whitewash their crackdown on freedom of expression by claiming they are clamping down on ‘terrorists.’ But in reality, the Egyptian authorities consider even peaceful opposition and expression as ‘terrorism,’” Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“The international community,” he added, “must not be fooled by this deceptive rhetoric.”

(Jacob Wirtschafter reported from Washington)