Under pressure from a jihadist insurgency, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has boosted police and judicial powers with a new anti-terrorism law that also imposes hefty fines for “false” media reports.
Rights groups, which have accused Sisi of imposing a repressive regime since the army ousted president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, fear the new law could be used to further muzzle dissent and target critics.
Sisi ratified the law on Sunday, as the country faces a growing wave of deadly attacks on security forces and civilians, led by the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group.
The government sped up the passage of the law after state prosecutor Hisham Barakat was assassinated in a car bombing in June, followed by a large-scale jihadist attack in the Sinai Peninsula days later.
It shields security forces from prosecution if they use force “when facing a real and imminent threat” while implementing the law.
It imposes the death penalty for those convicted of leading or financing “terrorist groups” and prison terms for those found guilty of inciting “a terrorist act”.
The judiciary and security forces already had wide-ranging powers in tackling “terrorism”, and Sisi’s regime has been accused of using the battle against jihadists as a pretext for crushing dissent.
– Fears over steep fines –
At least 1,400 people, many of them Morsi supporters, have been killed in a crackdown on protests since the Islamist’s overthrow. Hundreds of his backers have been sentenced to death after speedy trials and thousands more jailed.
The new law also targets the media, imposing fines on journalists found to be reporting information that contradicts official statements on militant attacks.
The military was infuriated after media, quoting security officials, reported that dozens of troops had been killed in the Sinai attack after Barakat’s murder. The military’s official death toll was 21 soldiers and scores of jihadists.
The new law sets fines from 200,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($25,500 to $64,000/23,000 to 57,000 euros) for journalists who stray from government statements in publishing or spreading “false” reports on attacks or security operations against militants.
Critics say the steep fines may shut down smaller newspapers, and deter larger publications from independently reporting on attacks and operations against militants.
The government had initially proposed a jail sentence for offenders, but backed down after a backlash from Egyptian media.
The ratified law added another clause, however, allowing courts to “prevent the convicted from practising the profession for a period of no more than one year, if the crime violates the principles of the profession”.
Government officials say the law requires proof of intent to publish false reports to secure a conviction.
But it is raising fears of further media prosecutions after three journalists with Al-Jazeera English were convicted last year of “defaming” Egypt and supporting Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
A verdict in their retrial is due by the end of the month.
– IS-led insurgency –
“This law effectively bans freedom of expression, assembly and association, and can be used to crack down on all kinds of freedoms,” Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher Mohamed El-Messiry said.
“It gives the president powers equivalent to those in a state of emergency. This law takes the country back to the period of Hosni Mubarak when a state of emergency prevailed for three decades.”
Veteran strongman Mubarak was forced out in 2011 by a popular uprising.
Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists called for a comprehensive revision of the law “so that it fully complies with international human rights law and standards”.
Though criticised by rights activists, the law has been backed by many in Egypt who are demanding a firm hand to restore stability in the country of 87 million people.
Egypt has been struggling with unrest since then-army chief Sisi overthrew Morsi, who became the country’s first democratically elected president following Mubarak’s ouster.
The government has responded with the mass trials of Morsi supporters, while the Muslim Brotherhood has been blacklisted as a “terrorist organisation”.
Morsi himself has been sentenced to death for allegedly participating in prison breaks and violence against police. He appealed against the verdict this month.
Jihadists loyal to IS have killed hundreds of soldiers and policemen in attacks that have mainly focused on Sinai, but also outside the restive peninsula.
IS last week said it executed a Croatian hostage it had kidnapped west of Cairo, almost a month after it bombed the Italian consulate in the capital, killing a passer-by.