Egypt’s presidential pardon is for criminals, not for politicians

From time to time, former Egyptian presidents used to issue pardoning decisions to politicians, sometimes in an attempt to polish their image, and sometimes to calm the political atmosphere, whether internally or externally. However, during the era of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, despite of the intense media promotion of amnesties that included oppositionists, this has not happened since the military coup in 2013. Ignoring the conditions of politicians inside the detention centres is the master of the situation so that thousands of al-Sisi’s opponents remain in prison for an indefinite period.

It is noteworthy that the decision to pardon 331 convicted prisoners on the occasion of Police Day and the January Revolution’s anniversary did not include a single journalist, human rights defender, or activist imprisoned for years. Meanwhile, the train chief accused in the death of a street vendor, known in the media as “the martyr of the ticket,” was included in a presidential pardon in October 2019. This raises discontent on the Egyptian street. The presidential ignorance coincided with the launch of the release campaign, which was adopted by the Void (opposition) movement, to release the elderly and the sick, who are in Egyptian prisons, under the slogan “Releasing every patient. Releasing the elderly.”

Al-Sisi used to release from time-to-time criminal prisoners convicted on several occasions in cases of premeditated murder, violence, and thuggery, including famous people. In September 2017, al-Sisi issued a decree to pardon hundreds of prisoners, including the famous businessman Talaat Mostafa, who was convicted of ordering the killing of the Lebanese singer Suzan Tamim and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In May 2018, a decision was issued to pardon one of the most famous thugs during the January 2011 revolution, known as Sabri Nakhnoukh, to be released after he served six years of his life sentence (25 years). In January 2020, al-Sisi issued a decree to pardon two officers accused of torturing a citizen to death, namely Major al-Muzammil Nafei and Captain Omar Ahmed Abu Aqrab. In May 2020, a presidential pardon was also issued by Mohsen al-Sukkari, the former state security officer sentenced to 25 years who was accused of killing the Lebanese artist Suzan Tamim in the UAE.

In exchange for the release of murderers and thugs, former presidential candidates, party leaders, youth figures, and prominent human rights figures continue to be arrested in cases of a political nature, without final rulings, which exceeds the period of pretrial detention stipulated in Egyptian law. The Egyptian Criminal Procedure Law states: “In all cases, the period of preventive detention in the primary investigation stage and the other stages of the criminal case may not exceed one-third of the maximum custodial penalty.”

According to the law, pretrial detention does not exceed six months in misdemeanors, 18 months in felonies, and two years if the prescribed punishment for the crime is life imprisonment or death. However, the law was violated in the case of the imprisonment of the Qatari Al Jazeera channel journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who has spent more than 1,500 days in Egyptian prisons since his arrest on December 23, 2016, while on holiday with his family.

Then there is the former presidential candidate and head of the Strong Egypt Party, Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who has been detained since February 14, 2018, that is, nearly three years in pretrial detention, in violation of the law that made two years the maximum limit for pretrial detention. The list includes doctor and activist Shadi al-Ghazali, who has been detained since May 2018 on charges of joining a banned group and spreading false information due to his critical writings on Facebook.

Among those who passed the pretrial detention period as well is journalist Moataz Wadnan who has been detained since February 16, 2018, due to an interview he had with the former head of the Central Auditing Organisation, Hisham Geneina. Since June 2019, members of what is known as the Hope Cell, which includes former parliamentarian Ziyad al-Alimi as well as the CEO of an investment bank, Omar el-Sheniti, and journalists Hussam Mo’nis and Hisham Fouad, have been in prison.

The Egyptian opposition has been pressing for a breakthrough for these detainees for years, supported by the release campaign calling for the release of the elderly and the sick and the Amnesty campaign to tweet about activists and human rights defenders who were arbitrarily arrested in Egypt. The international organisation (based in London) calls for the names of these activists to be shared throughout the week and to demand their immediate release, saying: “Let al-Sisi know that you are in solidarity with them.” No official figures specify the number of pretrial detainees in Egypt. Still, the Human Rights Committee’s former head in the Egyptian Parliament, Alaa Abed, estimated the number of pretrial detainees (until January 2018) at between 25,000 and 30,000.

According to the head of the Victims Centre for Human Rights, the well-known activist, Haitham Abu Khalil, 15,000 were released in 2020, and 54,000 others were released in 2019. Most of them are criminals, while political prisoners were ignored in the pardon decisions. The Endless Prison report issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights confirms that there are at least 1,464 people in Egyptian prisons whose period of pretrial detention has exceeded the legal period, in violation of Article 143 of the Criminal Procedure Law.

The National Security Agency (an internal intelligence agency) is behind identifying the lists of those pardoned, in coordination with other sovereign bodies, while rotating those who have completed the period of pretrial detention on other cases. According to human rights reports, revolving defendants’ cases and bringing new charges against them is a policy to start a new detention period for them which extends to more than two years.