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New Egyptian Constitution Fails To Protect Freedom Of Expression, Religion: HRW

The final draft of a constitution approved on November 29 by Egypt's 100-member constituent assembly protects some rights but undermines others, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The constitution, approved in the midst of a political standoff between the president and the judiciary, provides for basic protections against arbitrary detention and torture and for some economic rights but fails to end military trials of civilians or to protect freedom of expression and religion, the New York-based human rights watchdog said in a new release on Friday.

The constitution drafting process has been extremely contentious, and a number of assembly members resigned in protest over what they said was the failure of the dominant Islamist factions to compromise on key issues, including the place of religion in affairs of state. The decision comes on the heels of President Mohamed Morsy's controversial November 22 Constitutional Declaration immunizing his decrees from judicial review.

"The decision of constituent assembly leaders to move a flawed and contradictory draft to a vote is not the right way to guarantee fundamental rights or to promote respect for the rule of law," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. He warned that "Rushing through a draft while serious concerns about key rights protections remain unaddressed will create huge problems down the road that won't be easy to fix,"

Article 60 of the March 30 Constitutional Declaration issued by Egypt's military rulers in March 2011 states that a referendum on the constitution shall take place 15 days after the constituent assembly approves a draft. Judges in numerous circuits around the country have gone on strike to protest Morsy's Constitutional Declaration. It is not clear whether they will agree to supervise the referendum, as required by law.

Human Rights Watch wrote to the constituent assembly on October 8 outlining key concerns about various rights provisions based on a review of a September 27 draft of the constitution. There have been some improvements in the final draft, such as in the prohibition against torture and the deletion of other provisions incompatible with human rights law that would have unduly restricted free expression or the practice of religion, HRW said.

The latest draft, unlike the earlier version, defers to objections from the country's military leadership and has removed the clear prohibition of trials of civilians before military courts, HRW says.

Article 43 on freedom of religion limits the right to practice religion and to establish places of worship to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Previous drafts had provided for a general right to practice religion but limited the establishment of places of worship to adherents of these three Abrahamic religions. Article 43 discriminates against and excludes followers of other religions, including Egyptian Bahais. Under former President Hosni Mubarak, security forces would frequently arrest religious minorities including Shia, Ahmadis, Bahais, and Quranists because of their beliefs.

Article 198 of the final draft leaves intact the military's discretion to try civilians under the Code of Military Justice, HRW noted.

The failure to specify discrimination on the grounds of gender becomes problematic, Human Rights Watch said.

by RTTNews Staff Writer

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