Prominent international NGO Human Rights Watch called on President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi Sunday to reject a new law that would allow judges to skip the testimony of witnesses in court cases.
Judges would be able to do so in the interest of expedience, but with potentially deleterious effects on justice.
In February, Egypt’s cabinet approved a draft law amending criminal procedure code articles 277 and 289, allowing judges sole authority on whether or not to summon witnesses to testify. This would allow judges to overrule the right of defence lawyers to call witnesses. However, the full text of the proposed amendments has yet to be made public.
The amendments were proposed by the Supreme Committee for Legislative Reform (SCLR), comprised of senior officials, judges, lawyers, and religious leaders. Al-Sisi established the committee to draft new legislation soon after he took office in June 2014.
“The proposed changes to Egypt’s courtroom rules would endanger a core element of a fair trial, the defendant’s right to confront the evidence against them in court,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW in Sunday’s statement. “Egypt’s government should clearly and publicly renounce the proposed changes without delay.”
Executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Gamal Eid, previously told Daily News Egypt that the government’s apparent motive behind the amendments is to reduce prolonged lawsuits.
However, Eid added that the new draft law “not only conflicts with the constitution and binding international agreements but it also destroys the idea of justice at its roots”.
Earlier in March, an article on Egypt’s Lawyers Syndicate website claimed that Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb told the Syndicate there was “no intention” within the government to pass the amendments. Head of the Syndicate, Sameh Ashour, was unavailable for comment.
If Egypt were to pass the amendments they would appear to violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Egypt is a signatory. The Covenant guarantees a right of defence to any individual facing a criminal trial, including the testimony of witnesses.
Local media has reported that the State Council, a judicial body constitutionally empowered to review and advise on draft laws before they are enacted, has criticised the amendments as unconstitutional. Recently, however, many of the Council’s recommendations have been disregarded by the presidency, Whitson said.
“Given that parliament has been dissolved, it’s particularly important for the Egyptian government to consult the State Council before making any changes to the criminal procedure code, and listen to its recommendations,” she said.
“Egypt is obliged under international human rights law to protect the right to a fair trial,” Whitson said.
HRW describes Egypt’s legal environment, since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, as Al-Sisi’s issuing “laws by decree and without the scrutiny of parliament”. The upper chamber, the Shura Council, was dissolved following the ouster but there has been no sitting People’s Assembly before Morsi’s election in 2012.
The new laws issued by Mansour and Al-Sisi include: severely restricting peaceful protests; extending the power of military courts to try civilians; and allowing indefinite pre-trial detention of defendants accused of offenses that carry sentences of life in prison or death.
Eid said there are two ways to counter the government’s latest move – through appealing the constitutionality of the law, or waiting for a fairly representative parliament to reverse these amendments.
“The other way is political countering through pressure and exposure of such violations,” he added.
Eid believes the approval of such a draft law is unprecedented, “even in more rooted autocracies we didn’t see that, not even with Saddam Hussein”.