Detention renewal via video conference in Egypt raises widespread criticism

Human rights defenders say that the Egyptian regime seems determined to expand its rivalry with the opposition and use its security and judicial arms to abuse them inside and outside prisons. The Egyptian authorities have started a project to renew pretrial detention for the accused from a distance, despite human rights criticism that this step detracts from fair trial guarantees.

The new service links the New Cairo Court with the Tora Public Prisons Complex and the 15th of May and al-Nahda Central Prisons, via closed television networks, according to a statement issued by the Ministries of Justice and Communications. Perhaps at first glance, some consider this project positive. But with practical application to the reality in Egypt and its vast number of pretrial detainees, the new regime will turn into a curse and a tool for more significant abuse against them.

In light of the permanent retreat in the possibilities of releasing the defendants, lawyers and defendants consider the renewal of detention hearings the only outlet for them to meet each other and see their relatives. This comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in which detainees were denied visits for more than five months and then when they returned, there were extra precautionary measures preventing direct contact and multiple visitors. Also, the new system will only serve the interest of security, as with the massive increase in the number of pretrial detainees, especially in political cases, the renewal of remote detention will contribute to saving security and financial costs for organising patrols for the transfer of suspects between the prison and the court. According to observers, this measure has caused a lack of optimism about an imminent breakthrough in detainees and prisoners’ conditions.

Human rights defenders considered that this step detracts from the guarantees of a fair trial and threatens the accused’s rights and the defence in criminal cases, especially political ones. They saw that the renewal of confinement via video conference detracts from the guarantees of a fair trial and does not allow for direct communication between the accused and his judge, as well as codifies the exceptional procedures that began with the holding of trials in police headquarters instead of courtrooms. The new procedure is considered by the executive authority, represented by the Minister of Justice, over the legislative authority’s powers, which has not included amendments in the Code of Criminal Procedure to allow for remote trials so far.

Justice Minister Omar Marwan set three goals for the project, which are the speed of completion of investigations, the availability of the security aspect, as well as reducing the chances of the spread of the coronavirus among prisoners and citizens. In exchange for these three goals, the jurists asserted that the renewal, via video conference, threatens the accused’s rights and the defence in criminal cases, especially political ones.

The lawyer Khaled al-Masry said: “The direct meeting between the judge and the accused remains one of the most important guarantees of litigation because it allows the accused to communicate with his judge, and to inform him of any assault he is exposed to face to face without fear of being harassed by the prison officials.” He added that, so far, the mechanism for attorneys to attend investigations has not been clarified, whether it will be with the accused in prison, with the judge in the court, or in an allocated third room for lawyers. He pointed out that, according to the newspapers, the lawyers will be inside the prison during the renewal sessions, which is not practically and legally inconceivable at the same time.

The human rights defender, Ahmed Abdel Latif, also considered that the renewal of remote pretrial detention means doubling the number of defendants. He explained that the most prominent obstacle facing lawyers at present is a failure to inform them of the dates of the investigations into their clients, especially before the State Security Prosecution, which is something that lawyers try to beat by having a permanent presence in the prosecution. This will not be possible through remote trials.

Human rights defender, Khaled Ali, said that this procedure violates the Criminal Procedure Law in its current form, pointing out that implementing this technology requires a legislative amendment that sets public trial standards in remote trials. Ali explained that the new economic courts’ law dealt with remote trials and defined a mechanism for instituting cases, announcing the litigants, and submitting each of them electronically.