On May 21, 2001, 62-year-old sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who has dual Egyptian and U.S. citizenship, was sentenced by a three-judge panel on Egypt's Supreme Security Court to seven years in prison. He was immediately taken from the courtroom and is currently being held in Tora Mazraa Prison in south Cairo. Twenty seven members of Dr. Ibrahim's staff at the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies (ICDS) in Cairo (which he directs), including two women who were detained along with him, were also found guilty. Most received sentences ranging from one to five years in prison. A number of them had their sentences suspended. The two women, Nadia Abdel Nour (chief accountant at the Center) and Magda El Beh (a part-time field worker), were both sentenced to hard labor and are being held in the Quantar Prison for Women where conditions are harsh, and they are denied family visits.
Charges brought against these 28 individuals, which the Committee on Human Rights (CHR) considers to be fallacious, included accepting foreign funds without authorization, disseminating false information harmful to Egypt's interest, bribing public employees, forgery, and embezzlement. The European Union, whose funds the court has claimed were embezzled, has publicly stated that no misuse of their funds has been found.
The harsh verdicts, which reportedly were handed down before lawyers for the defense had finished submitting their briefs and only an hour and a half after their summations had been completed, and the speed at which the judgment was made came as a shock to those following the case. It had been expected, given that thousands of pages of evidence had been submitted to the court for consideration in its deliberations, that a final judgment would not be reached until sometime in June 2001, at the earliest.
Respected human rights groups in Egypt and abroad immediately said that the verdicts were politically motivated and noted that the trial failed to meet international standards for fair trial. Lawyers for the defense reportedly will appeal the verdicts as soon as they receive the written ruling, which is to be issued within 30 days of sentencing. Once the written ruling is received, the defense will have 60 days to submit an appeal, based on procedural irregularities and limited legal challenges to the substance of the court ruling. The appeal will be submitted to the Court of Cassation, which is the highest appellate authority in Egypt. Because the Court of Cassation is a constitutionally governed court rather than a special court created by state security, Dr. Ibrahim and his family remain confident that the next appeal, which could take months before being heard, will result in exoneration of the defendants.
As he was led out of the courtroom Dr. Ibrahim, according to the press, said: “The fight goes on for justice, democracy and human rights. We will go through all the
necessary litigation. I have no regrets. I'm paying a price for what I believed and stood for. I think Egypt deserved better and that's what I stood for and what I am committed to”
On Friday, May 25, 2001, having received permission “as an exceptional favor” from the attorney general, several members of Dr. Ibrahim's family visited him in prison on Friday, May 25, 2001. (It appears that none of the other 27 individuals sentenced, including those whose sentences were suspended, have been in contact with their families since the verdicts were handed down ten days earlier.) Dr. Ibrahim 's family reported that he is being properly treated but they are worried about his health. He is suffering from a deteriorating nervous system disorder, as yet undiagnosed, which is affecting his balance, walking, and use of his left hand, with progressive numbness in his right (writing) hand. The director of the Tora Mazraa Prison reportedly has given his assurances that Dr. Ibrahim will continue to be given his medications and monitored by prison doctors. The family also reported that, in response to Dr. Ibrahim's complaint about the lack of adequate exercise, they have been told that the situation will be remedied. The family has requested that a committee made up of neurological specialists review Dr. Ibrahim's private physician's findings and make urgent arrangements for follow-up care.
The Committee's Work on the Case
In the course of its work the Committee on Human Rights (CHR) learned in late June 2000 of the detention of Dr. Ibrahim. (For a description of the CHR and a list of its members, see Appendix B.) It carefully investigated the case, using a number of reliable sources, and concluded that Dr. Ibrahim was most likely detained for having nonviolently exercised his rights as promulgated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Specifically, it appeared that Dr. Ibrahim was being detained for having exercised his right to freedom of opinion and information under Article 19 and for having promoted the right to participate in government and in free elections among Egyptian citizens under Article 21. Additionally, in the course of his detention and subsequent hearings, serious questions arose as to whether Dr. Ibrahim's right to freedom from arbitrary arrest under Article 9, his right to a fair public hearing under Article 10, and his right to be considered innocent until proven guilty under Article 11 were being accorded to him by the Egyptian authorities.
The CHR informed more than 1,700 members of the NAS, NAE, and IOM, who serve as its correspondents, as well as the institutions in 50-some countries which are affiliated with the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies (Network), of the facts of the case and its concerns. It urged that they intervene vis-à -vis the Egyptian authorities to make them aware of the widespread knowledge and alarm among the members of the international scientific community about Dr. Ibrahim's
case. Subsequently, the CHR sent its correspondents and Network members regular updates on developments in the case and urged them to continue to write. These alerts generated a large number of letters to the Egyptian authorities and many letters of support to Dr. Ibrahim and his family.
In addition, the CHR wrote to the European Commission (EC) to make its officers aware of the CHR's concerns and to learn what action the EC itself might be taking; it sent several letters of appeal to President Mubarak and other Egyptian government officials; it wrote to the U.S. secretary of state, the Egypt desk officer at the Department of State, and the House and Senate foreign relations committees to request their interventions vis-à-vis the Egyptian government authorities in Dr. Ibrahim's behalf. It also wrote several letters to the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer, to thank him for his interventions and to urge his continued attention to Dr. Ibrahim's case. The CHR also approached, through NAS members, several prominent Egyptian scientists living abroad to inform them of its concern about Dr. Ibrahim's plight and in the hope that they would take personal action in his case.
Because the CHR routinely seeks to provide moral support to those colleagues whose cases it undertakes, as well as to their families, Dr. Ibrahim's wife, Barbara, was contacted and told of the widespread concern about her husband's case among his scientific colleagues worldwide. The CHR also inquired as to the most constructive private efforts the committee and the Network might consider taking in Dr. Ibrahim's behalf. Over a period of months this contact was maintained and strengthened. At one point Barbara Ibrahim wrote, with regard to the possibility of the CHR and Network sending observers to Dr. Ibrahim's trial:
We are ready to get on with the trial, but some of the lawyers think that a further ‘cooling off period' after the elections here [November 2000] would be helpful By December 10th, we will have met with all the lawyers and have a clearer idea about timing. If you can hold off till then on making travel decisions, it might be better. We agree with you that if an observer is to come then it should be when the substance of the case is being presented. In all eventualities, we are extremely grateful for this signal of support. There is no doubt that it is noted and makes a difference. Our best wishes to all . . .
Subsequently, the CHR invited Dr. Ibrahim to travel to Paris in early May to speak at a semi-public symposium, Human Rights and the Scientific Community, during the fifth biennial meeting of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. The meeting was organized by the CHR, which serves as secretariat for the Network, and was hosted by the French Academy of Sciences. In early April Barbara Ibrahim wrote to the CHR that it seemed very unlikely that Dr. Ibrahim 's passport could be restored by the time of the symposium. Thus, the CHR invited Dr. Barbara Ibrahim to speak in his stead, which she agreed to do.
During her talk Barbara Ibrahim, who is a U.S. citizen, spoke about the work of her husband and his associates at the Center in promoting human rights and democratic reforms in Egypt. She prefaced her remarks by saying:
It is truly, for me, an honor to be in this room today and to be addressing all of you, to bring you personally from my husband, from his 27 associates, many of whom are young Egyptians, their personal and deep gratitude and thanks for the work that your academies, that your Network, and executive committee have done on their behalf since last summer when they were imprisoned, interrogated, and are now under indictment in the high state security courts in Egypt.
Barbara Ibrahim went on to say that, in her husband's assessment, international attention and persistence in the case of the 28 detainees means a great deal to those people in Egypt who, at the moment, feel rather isolated within their own society. She then described what happened on the night of June 30, 2000, when her husband was arrested.
None of our family were at home when about 30 to 40 state security policemen surrounded our home . . . in the southern part of Cairo, with guns and ammunition and a warrant for my husband's arrest. They entered our home, they gathered up his computers, some of the papers that he was working on and, very significantly, went straight to a cupboard in his study where, only a few days earlier, someone had brought some papers and told him there was a need for safekeeping of these particular papers. They seemed to know the location of those documents and took them, along with him personally.
He was taken up to his Center, where he found that the female accountant and her assistant had also been arrested on the street, had been blindfolded, had been brought back to the Center, and they were asked to show where all of the financial files and the program files for the Center were kept. These were systematically rounded up. They were all taken to state security headquarters in another part of the city and held in incommunicado overnight.
Throughout her talk and during the question and answer period, Barbara Ibrahim consistently expressed faith in Egypt's judicial system and confidence that her husband would be exonerated.
On May 31, 2001, following Dr. Ibrahim's sentencing to seven years in prison, the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine sent an appeal to President Mubarak (see Appendix A for the full text of the letter) and subsequently made it public. This report was also made public at that time. In their letter the three presidents said:
We hereby respectfully urge your Excellency to show humanity and exercise your constitutional powers to intercede in this case and to immediately and unconditionally release Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Of course, we hope that the others who were convicted with Dr. Ibrahim will be released as well. Such a magnanimous gesture would be most welcomed by our members and the international scientific community.
Early in 2001 the CHR asked NAS/NAE member Dr. Morton Panish and former National Research Council staff member Mr. Jay Davenport to undertake a private mission to Cairo for the committee. The purpose of the mission was to:
open lines of communication with relevant high level Egyptian government officials regarding Dr. Ibrahim's case;
meet with relevant and appropriate Egyptians, including representatives of human rights organizations, and with Dr. Ibrahim himself who was released from prison on bail on August 10, 2000, his family, and his colleagues;
establish whether Dr. Ibrahim's right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, as promulgated by Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is respected;
attend as observers Dr. Ibrahim's trial scheduled during the week of February 17, 2001, before the State Security Court; and
present an assessment of the case to the members of the NAS, NAE, IOM, and the Network for their consideration and possible further action.
Dr. Panish and Mr. Davenport (hereafter referred to as “the delegates”) traveled to Cairo on February 15, 2001, and remained for 12 days. The report that they wrote to the CHR after returning from their mission follows.