Cairo - Egypt's president has approved a far-reaching anti-terrorism law that establishes stiffer prison sentences for terror-related offences, heavy fines for journalists who publish "false news" and a special judicial circuit for terrorism cases.
Authorities claim the measures will halt attacks by Islamic militants and stop the spread of their ideology, but the new restrictions have prompted concern from rights groups and even some politicians and senior judges.
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The 54-article bill, signed into law Sunday night by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, sketches out an extremely broad definition of terrorism, describing it in one article as any act that disturbs public order with force. Some charges, such as leading or organizing a terrorist group, carry the death penalty.
The law also prescribes stiff jail sentences for a range of crimes, including promoting or encouraging any "terrorist offense," as well as damaging state institutions or infrastructure, such as military or government buildings, courthouses, power and gas lines as well as archaeological sites.
Egyptians lived under so-called "emergency laws" for decades that gave police sweeping powers, encouraging a culture of excess and brutality among security forces, something that partially inspired the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The law was suspended after his overthrow.
Rights activists say that the new anti-terrorism law is even more draconian than the emergency law, and note that police under el-Sissi have already begun to act with the impunity of the Mubarak days, torturing detainees and denying them basic medical services in overcrowded prisons and police holding cells. The government denies these charges and insists that offenders don't go unpunished, but policemen rarely face prosecution, and even fewer serve jail time.
The new law would to some extent absolve the security forces from prosecution, with an article stipulating that there would be no criminal inquiries against those who use force to implement its statues or protect themselves or property from imminent danger. The law does however stipulate that the use of force be "necessary and proportionate."
It also sets heavy fines of 200,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds (some $26,000 to $64,000) for publishing "false news or statements" about terrorist acts, or news contradicting the Defense Ministry's reports. It also sanctions, with a minimum of five years prison, the "promotion, directly or indirectly, of any perpetration of terrorist crimes, verbally or in writing or by any other means."
It was not immediately clear what the government or the judiciary would consider to be "false news," or if the new law would criminalize the publication of statements from militant groups or facts that contradict the government's narrative. Previous drafts of the law had stipulated prison terms for journalists.
Egypt has not had a parliament for over two years, and legislative authority rests with el-Sissi, who as military chief in 2013 ousted the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president. In his 14 months in office, el-Sissi has passed dozens of laws. Debate over them, if any, takes place in an almost universally compliant media or behind closed doors. El-Sissi has promised parliamentary elections before the end of this year.
The Cabinet approved the draft last month, two days after a car bomb in an upscale Cairo neighborhood killed the country's prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat. The same day of the Cabinet approval, Islamic militants launched a multi-pronged attack attempting to seize a northern Sinai town, hitting the military with suicide attacks and battling soldiers for hours.
The State Council, a judicial body that must vet bills and advises the government on legal issues, had reviewed the draft and made a few changes to it, most at the request of the government, a member of the council said earlier. The Cabinet then reviewed it to consider any changes sought by representatives of the judiciary, whose opinions are non-binding.
At Barakat's funeral, a visibly angry el-Sissi shouted that courts must act faster, and his ire was matched by TV reporters calling for the quick implementation of death sentences issued against Islamists, including Morsi and leaders of his now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The government has also pushed back aggressively against the foreign media, which officials and the pro-government media frequently accuse of bias against the government or exaggerating the scale of militant attacks. The military spokesman has warned local media against using foreign media reports.
The new law gives stronger powers to prosecutors, and orders existing courts to set up special circuits for handling terrorism-related felonies and misdemeanors, a potentially ominous step that echoes the Mubarak-era State Security Court system. Under Mubarak, a parallel court system with hand-picked judges handled a wide array of cases ranging from mass trials of alleged Muslim Brotherhood members to academics whose research was judged to be defaming Egypt's international reputation. Authorities say the new judicial circuit will help speed up prosecutions.
The law also gives the president the right to take "extraordinary measures" to confront terrorism, including evacuating areas or enacting curfews.