CAIRO — Egypt's notorious emergency law expired Thursday, ending 31 years of broad powers to detain and arrest for a police force accused of severely abusing its far-reaching authority.
Since former President Anwar Sadat's 1981 assassination, the security forces were empowered to detain and arrest people without charge, keep them locked up despite court releases and extract confessions under torture. Abuses almost always went unpunished. And at one point under the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak, human rights groups said there were more than 10,000 people in detention – many of them disappearing in Egyptian prisons.
"This is huge," said Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist who had campaigned for years to lift the hated law. "What is really crucial is the message. The security forces operated under a culture that told them they were constantly above the law. Now they need to abide by the existing legislation and they won't enjoy any extralegal powers."
Last year's popular uprising that drove Mubarak from power was partially fueled by anger over police abuses of power and protesters vented against the symbols of the security agencies. The lifting of the law was a key demand by the pro-democracy youth groups that engineered the uprising 15 months ago.
The military rulers who took charge after Mubarak indicated they have no intention to renew the law. They said they will continue to be in charge of the country's security until an elected civilian authority takes over. The military has said it will hand over power to a democratically elected president by the end of June. A runoff between the two top presidential candidates slated for June 16-17 is the final phase of the transition to democratic rule.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner welcomed the end of the emergency law, saying it was a step "in the right direction."
"It is something that we have repeatedly encouraged them to do and it is certainly in keeping with the timeline that the (military) has set out for this democratic transition so it will be another step in that direction," he told reporters in Washington.
The emergency law was a defining and much-resented feature of Mubarak's authoritarian, 29-year regime. It was almost automatically renewed every few years; the last time in May 2010. The law had also been used by Mubarak's predecessors, and was first enacted in 1958. It remained in effect since 1967 and was briefly lifted for 18 months before Sadat's assassination.
It instituted a culture of abuse by the police force, giving it widespread powers to arrest criminals and political opponents. It was basically the main tool for successive Egyptian regimes to perpetuate a police state, spreading a culture of fear of authorities and rendering any political opposition almost immediately a threat to national security.
Mubarak's regime justified the continued use of the law to crack down on terrorism, drug trafficking and to impose speedy justice on activities deemed threats to national security. But human rights groups and activists said it gave security agencies extensive powers to detain, try without defendant rights, and crack down on opponents or menace citizens to entrench a culture of fear.
Under military rule of the past 15 months, a constitutional declaration sponsored by the military and drafted by legal experts put restrictions on renewing the emergency law, requiring that parliament would have to approve any renewal and a public referendum would also be needed.
"No one would dare demand the extension of the law," said Mahmoud Ghozlan, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood who had spent years in jail following arrests under the provisions of the emergency law. "I think we are at the outset of a new era."
Days into the uprising, the police force all but disappeared from the streets, leaving a massive security vacuum that sent crime soaring. Since, there have been repeated and persistent calls to reform the police force but they have not really gotten off the ground.
Since Mubarak's ouster, human rights groups have blamed the military for its own set of human rights violations through its use of military tribunals for civilians and detention of activists. More than 11,000 civilians have been referred to military tribunals since February last year and there have been various allegations of torture in detention by security as well as military troops.
Under the emergency law, which was last renewed in May 2010, the government could imprison anyone for any period of time for no specific reason. The detainees would stay in prison without trials for extended period, and even court orders releasing them can be ignored by security agencies who would take them back in again.
Mubarak's security agencies targeted opponents, particularly Brotherhood members, cracking down on their meetings, finances and often in times of elections with recourse to emergency law provisions.
In two recent incidents, police arrested two men for drinking beer, although nothing in the law criminalizing that. After local prosecutors released them, the police detained them again under the provisions of the emergency law, apparently because they considered the two men a menace.
The incidents were recorded in a joint report issued by New York-based Human Rights Watch and Geneva-based AlKarama, a regional rights center issued Wednesday.
"This is an end of exceptional measures that provided cover to human rights abuses such as torture and enforced disappeared," said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It is the symbolism attached to it" as one of the main tools of oppression under Mubarak's rule, she said.
There are currently nearly 200 people detained under the emergency law. The two rights groups called for their release or referral to regular prosecutor for charges.
The legacy of the emergency law still lingers. According to the law, defendants can be referred to special courts – State Security emergency courts – where they have no right to appeal. Human Rights Watch and AlKarama appealed to the parliament to end the use of these courts, which have been deemed unconstitutional by lawyers with the expiration of the law.
Six new cases have been referred to these courts under military rule since last year; while eight others are still in courts from before.
Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East director Joe Stork urged the parliament to investigate human rights violations that flourished because of the law.
"The Egyptian parliament should make sure that this state of emergency, a hallmark of Hosni Mubarak's abusive police state, has no future," Stork said.