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Canada - Egypt : Open Letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird in advance of trip to Egypt

    April 16, 2014

    The Honourable John Baird
    Minister of Foreign Affairs
    125 Sussex Drive
    Ottawa, Ontario
    K1A 0G2

    April 15, 2014

    Dear Minister Baird,

    We are writing this Open Letter to you in advance of your trip to Egypt later this week.  In the face of a deeply troubling human rights crisis in Egypt, your visit offers a crucial opportunity to convey a clear message that Canada looks to the Egyptian government to take immediate and meaningful steps to address the continuing deterioration in the country’s human rights situation.  Amnesty International members across Canada are calling on you to make it clear that Canada expects the Egyptian government to commit to a program of action to protect the human rights of all Egyptians.

    In addition to raising these very serious overarching concerns about the state of human rights protection in Egypt, we are calling on you to press for action with respect to three particular situations:

    • the immediate and unconditional release of Canadian citizen and prisoner of conscience Mohamed Fahmy;
    • the release from detention of detained Canadian permanent resident Khaled al-Qazzaz who has been held without charge or trial for nine months, unless he is promptly charged with recognizably criminal offences and tried before civilian courts in a fair trial; and
    • the overturning of mass death sentences imposed on 528 individuals on March 24th of this year.

    Egypt’s Human Rights Record

    Last month Amnesty International joined with 14 other international human rights organizations in making an urgent plea to the UN Human Rights Council to respond to what we described as the “serious and rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in Egypt.”  The joint statement noted that repression in the country had reached levels unprecedented since the 2011 uprising and highlighted the range of very serious violations and abuses that occur on a daily basis.

    • A severe and comprehensive crackdown against persons who have dared to publicly criticize the military-backed government, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, as well as pro-democracy and human rights movement activists within the country. 
    • Repeated resort by security forces to use of force, including lethal force, leading to the death of hundreds of protesters and serious injuries of hundreds more. 
    • Widespread, severe restrictions on freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, as well as academic freedoms.
    • Unlawful and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of protest leaders, university students, journalists and human rights defenders.
    • Women’s rights have been particularly affected as a consequence of the current political polarization and high levels of sexual and gender-based violence has been reported.
    • Coptic Christian communities have faced high levels of sectarian attacks.
    • A failure of justice and accountability means that impunity for grave human rights violations continues to be deeply entrenched in the country.

    Minister, Amnesty International takes no position with respect to the political and societal divisions at the heart of the turmoil and violence in Egypt over the past year.  We have highlighted however that the clear failure to safeguard human rights only deepens insecurity and instability in the country.

    High level international calls on the Egyptian government to end violations and commit to an agenda of meaningful human rights reform have mounted in recent months. 

    • In January, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed grave concern about the state of human rights in the country.  She called on all sides to renounce the use of violence and noted that security forces have a duty to respect the right to peaceful protest. 
    • In March, a cross-regional group of 27 countries, including such close Canadian allies as the United States, the United Kingdom and France, made a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council, expressing very serious concern about the human rights situation in Egypt and pressing for action to end impunity, uphold the right to peaceful protest and ensure the safety of human rights defenders. 
    • And on March 31st a group of eight UN human rights experts issued an urgent statement calling on the Egyptian government immediately to quash the 529 death sentences handed down a week earlier.

    Minister, it is time for Canada unequivocally to add its voice to this growing international chorus demanding an end to Egypt’s downward human rights spiral. Your visit offers an invaluable opportunity to convey that important message.  Canadians expect that to be at the top of your agenda.

    Mohamed Fahmy

    Minister, as you are aware Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, the English-language bureau chief in Egypt for the Al-Jazeera television network, was arrested with two colleagues, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed, on 29 December 2013.  They are facing trial on charges that they allegedly provided assistance to a banned group engaged in terrorist activities.  Amnesty International has described their arrest and trial as being “vindictive persecution.”  We have noted that it arises in a wider and very serious crackdown against media who are not seen as supportive of the current government. 

    Amnesty International has determined that Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed are prisoners of conscience, arrested simply for doing their job as journalists.  We have called for their unconditional and immediate release.  Their cases have been taken up by many global leaders, including US President Barrack Obama, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbot and Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.  We urge you to add your voice to theirs and to press for Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohamed to be freed immediately and without condition.

    Khaled al-Qazzaz

    Canadian permanent resident Khaled al-Qazzaz was working as an aide to former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi when he was arrested and “disappeared” on 3 July 2013.  For two months his wife, Canadian citizen Sarah Attia, knew nothing of his fate or whereabouts.  He is now held in the country’s notorious Tora Prison.  More than nine months since his arrest he has not been charged or tried.  His lawyers have been prevented from visiting him in detention.  Family visits have been restricted.  There are serious concerns about the conditions of his imprisonment. 

    Khaled al-Qazzaz’s detention is in clear violation of international human rights standards that require detainees to be charged and tried promptly.  We urge you to raise his case during your visit and make it clear that Canada expects him to be released if he is not charged immediately with a recognizably criminal offence by the ordinary (not military) Prosecution and brought to trial before civilian courts in proceedings that meet international fair trial standards without recourse to the death penalty.

    528 Death Sentences

    On March 24th – after a trial in an Egyptian court that lasted approximately one hour, with most defendants tried in absentia, no prosecution evidence presented to establish the individual guilt of any of the accused, and defence lawyers blocked from calling witnesses – 528 people were sentenced to death in what is undeniably the largest mass death sentence, anywhere, for many years.  The outrage from around the world has been swift and unrelenting.  The combination of what can only be described as a sham trial coupled with such callous and indifferent resort to the death penalty at a time of significant global momentum towards its abolition has been an affront to human rights, the rule of law and the international community. 

    Amnesty International has called on Egyptian authorities to overturn these death sentences and ensure that the individuals are retried in proceedings that rigorously meet fair trial standards and do not involve resort to the death penalty.  We have also pressed the authorities to agree to impose a moratorium on executions, overturn all other death sentences and agree not to seek or impose the death penalty in other cases.  As a country that has not resorted to the death penalty in over fifty years, it is vitally important that Canada press those same demands with Egyptian authorities.

    Minister you visit Egypt at a critical juncture for human rights in the country.  Additionally, you have an opportunity to press forcefully for action regarding three situations in which Canada’s voice is particularly influential: the cases of Mohamed Fahmy and Khaled al-Qazzaz and the mass death sentences imposed less than one month ago on 528 individuals.  We look forward to hearing of the steps you take to press for human rights improvements in Egypt.

    Alex Neve    
    Secretary General   
    Amnesty International Canada 
    (English Branch)

    Béatrice Vaugrante
    Directrice Générale
    Amnistie Internationale Canada Francophone


    For further information contact John Tackaberry, Media Relations
    (613)744-7667 #236