The assembly law’s fate: What are the implications of the challenge to the British colonial-era statute

Human rights activists filed a lawsuit in front of the Court of Administrative Justice on January 31, contesting the existence of Law 10 of 1914, otherwise known as the assembly law. Introduced under British rule, the law functioned as an emergency measure during World War I and has been used by post-independence Egyptian governments to restrict assembly and provide license for the arrest of protesters.

However, the assembly law may have long ceased to exist, according to a report issued by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) that was published on the same day the suit was filed. Research shows that Egypt’s Parliament voted to annul the law in 1928, months before the legislative body was dissolved. There is no record that King Fouad I, Egypt’s executive authority at the time, approved or rejected Parliament’s repeal within the month he was provided under the 1923 Constitution, a fact that those who filed the lawsuit on Tuesday claim serves as the basis for the ratification of the act of repeal.

The lawsuit, which is scheduled to be heard in court on April 4, and the CIHRS’s report are caught in a web of implications. Crucial to mapping these out is an understanding of how the 1914 assembly law relates to Egypt’s protest law – the 1923 protest law, which was subsequently abolished and replaced by the 2013 protest law, which mentions the assembly law in its preamble. If the lawsuit is granted, there may be justification for many political prisoners to be released on the grounds of time served, or at least to be retried. There is a larger question of whether the lawsuit, in addition to the recent Supreme Constitutional Court decision that ruled article 10 of the protest law is unconstitutional, provides political capital to change Egypt’s legal measures on assembly.

What is the assembly law?

Egypt’s assembly law was passed in 1914 during the First World War amid pressure from the British to contain potential unrest. The law criminalizes the assembly of five or more people in public and private space if authorities consider the gathering to be a threat to public peace. The law effectively forms the basis for the collective punishment of those assembled by lowering the threshold of the liability that the prosecution must establish for any individual criminal act. Therefore, any crime committed by a participant in an assembly is considered to be the responsibility of all those present.

The law carries a six-month sentence for illegal assembly, but it can also be used as a cipher for further charges, with authorities being able to attribute criminal offenses committed during a gathering onto those who disseminated calls for assembly, even if they did not attend the demonstration or gathering.

What is the difference between the protest law and the assembly law?

Although, often mistaken with the protest law, used in conjunction with it and covering some of the same matters, the 1914 assembly law is a separate statute. While the protest law principally governs and has instated an onerous approval process that anyone seeking to protest must submit to, the 1914 law applies mostly to liability for acts that occur during a protest.

The assembly law carries harsher punitive measures, but Egypt’s courts often use both laws in combination to maximize prison terms.

How has the law been used?

Judges have used the assembly law to detain thousands of activists and to issue mass death sentences to Islamists under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, using the low threshold for liability that the statute upholds.

For example, on the basis that imprisoned activist Alaa Abd El Fattah shared a call for demonstrations outside the Shura Council on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, the court ruled he advocated for an unlawful demonstration that was likely to break the protest law and influence members of the constitution drafting committee, in addition to having called for an assembly that resulted in an assault on two police officers.

“The court also concluded that Alaa Abd El Fattah was responsible for every act committed by any of the people present at the assembly in pursuance of its purpose, even if he were not present at the time or had left prior to the commission of the act, reasoning that he was an organizer of the assembly under Article 4 of Law 10/1914. The other defendants bore criminal liability for the crime committed as well because they were committed in pursuance of the intended purpose of the assembly, of which participants had knowledge. As such, they bore responsibility as accomplices under paragraph 2 of Article 3 of the assembly law,” the CIHRS report asserts.

How is this British colonial-era law still in force in Egypt today?

Egypt’s Parliament repealed the 1914 assembly law on January 30, 1928, asserting it contravened the nation’s 1923 Constitution, which guaranteed the right to assembly. The British reluctantly agreed. But, as CIHRS recently discovered, the decision to repeal the law was never published in the Official Gazette: the last stage in the legal process.

According to the 1923 Constitution, King Fouad I should have stated any objection to Parliament’s decision to repeal the law within one month. Fouad’s power was already under threat, and he presumably had no intention of annulling laws that would help stem dissent. The period passed, however, and the monarch was silent. When Fouad became aware of the constitutional caveat, he asked the British to intervene. They refused, and, a few months later, Parliament was dissolved. The legislation repealing the law was not mentioned again as far as CIHRS could ascertain.

Despite ambiguity over the status of the law, postcolonial governments continued to uphold it, including former President Anwar Sadat, who used the assembly law to detain protesters in 1977.

What are the implications of CIHRS’ findings?

Twenty-one human rights workers and activists, including two prisoners who are currently being detained under the law, have filed a lawsuit to ratify the 1928 Parliament’s repeal of the law. The signatories have called for release and compensation for all those held under the law.

While there have been instances in which Egypt’s executive authority has published laws outside of the one month mandatory timeframe, the extent of time that the repeal of the assembly law, a criminal statute, has remained uncommented on is unprecedented.

If the law is repealed, CIHRS hopes those convicted of a number of crimes in which assembly is the principle crime may be eligible for a retrial or have their sentences reduced, as the protest law requires proof of individual criminal liability. Those currently imprisoned under the assembly law may be eligible for release or retrial, and those who have served their sentences may be able to sue for damages.

Note: This piece has been updated since it was first published


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