Egyptian authorities should drop their investigation into six young men who posted satirical videos commenting on Egypt’s politics on YouTube and release four of them, who have been detained since May 10, 2016. The investigation appears to be based purely on their satirical videos and violates the right to free speech.
Prosecutors are investigating the men, of a group called Street Children, after the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency alleged that they are “instigators against the ruling regime” who plotted to use “the internet, social media sites and YouTube” to spread video clips that would undermine the country’s stability by inciting citizens to protest. Prosecutors also investigated the four men in custody about terrorism-related accusations. On June 20, the East Cairo Public Prosecution Office sent the case to the Supreme State Security Prosecution, saying it was out of its jurisdiction.
“Egypt under Sisi is losing its legendary sense of humor when it locks up young men for making satirical videos,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “This kind of blanket repression leaves young people with few outlets to express themselves or joke about their daily hardships.”
Security forces arrested Ezz al-Din Khaled, 19, the group’s youngest member, on May 8. A judge released him on bail of 10,000 L.E (US$1,125) on May 10, after prosecutors charged him with inciting protests and using online platforms to insult state institutions. Security forces arrested Mohamed Dessouky, Mohamed Adel, Mohamed Gabr, and Mohamed Yehia on May 10 and are holding them in Cairo’s Heliopolis Police Station on suspicion of the same charges. Prosecutors most recently renewed their 15-day detention order pending investigations on June 18.
Under international law, a judge, not a prosecutor, should promptly review any arrest. However, Egyptian law allows extended periods of pretrial detention without judges’ orders. The sixth member of the group, Mostafa Zein, is under investigation but has not been arrested.
The week before the arrests, Street Children released a satirical music video in which they mocked President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and called on him to leave office.
Their lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an Egyptian human rights group, told Human Rights Watch that East Cairo district prosecutors have interrogated the four detained men about additional accusations. They include establishing a group that calls for resisting the authorities, disseminating false news to undermine public order, and inciting to overthrow the “ruling regime.”
These accusations, under penal code articles 171 and 174, carry possible 5-year prison sentences. The lawyer said that prosecutors also threatened to use terrorism charges, including articles 86 and 86 bis, which might lead to much longer sentences.
Prosecution reports reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed that prosecutors are relying heavily on a two-page National Security Agency report on Street Children, written by Major Ahmed Abd al-Rahman on May 6. The report, reviewed by Human Rights Watch, cites “trusted confidential sources” who identified the group as “instigators” who “distort the words of some national songs and replace them with verbal abuse against the state.”
As is often the case in National Security reports, Major Abd al-Rahman did not describe the sources, and prosecutors have not questioned the officer further, said Othman, the lawyer. Based on the memo, the Supreme State Security Prosecution granted National Security officers a warrant to raid and inspect the men’s houses and arrest them.
The prosecution reports also showed that prosecutors questioned the four men about “indirectly” inciting “terrorist crimes” and indirectly disseminating terrorist thoughts by participating in videos that contained terrorist ideas.
The six members of the group, most in their 20s, met at a theater workshop and decided to move their performances to the street to make them more accessible to people who cannot afford the theater, one of their project coordinators told Human Rights Watch. In January, they began posting their selfie-style videos, in which they sing about topics including the Muslim Brotherhood, religious preachers, the value of the Egyptian pound and the decision to cede two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, and have attracted more than 1.1 million views on their YouTube Channel.
The group is also facing possible accusations of contempt of religion, which prosecutors have used more often in recent months and which led to 5-year prison sentences in absentia for four children in February because of their involvement in a short YouTube video mocking the extremist group Islamic State. Reports in local newspapers stated that the Alexandria Minor Offenses Prosecution began separate investigations of Street Children based on a report, filed by lawyer Tarek Mahmoud, that accused the group of insulting Islam in their videos. Othman, the group’s lawyer, said that no one has been interrogated on this accusation yet.
Following the arrest of the four group members, journalists, professors, and other public figures began an online petition calling for the four men’s unconditional release and “free rein to freedom of opinion, imagination, and satire.”
Al-Sisi’s government severely restricts expression. Authorities have arrested and prosecuted dozens of journalists and confiscated journalistic material, according to a 2015 report by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. In late January, security officials briefly arrested a cartoonist, Islam Gawish, for his satirical comics that criticized the presidency and government policies.
Asked about the government’s troubled relationship with youth activists, al-Sisi admitted during a televised interview on June 3 that state institutions, including the presidency, had failed to create mechanisms to effectively communicate with youth.
The investigations against the Street Children violate international human rights laws. The resolution on the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2002 prohibits arbitrary interference by governments in freedom of expression.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party, guarantees freedom of expression and opinion. Limitations are permissible only when they are stated clearly by law and are necessary to protect the rights or reputation of others or national security, public order, public health, or morals.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the covenant, stressed that “the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties” and that “all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition.”
“Egypt’s youth have been a driving force for change since the 2011 uprising,” Houry said. “Upholding human rights and free speech is the best way for al-Sisi to begin to repair the government’s relationship with them.”