CAIRO — Human Rights Watch on Monday urged the panel writing Egypt's new constitution to amend articles in the draft that the New York-based group says repress the rights of women and children and limit freedom of religion and expression.
In a letter delivered to the panel, HRW said the draft upholds some political and civil rights, such as banning trials of civilians before military courts – a practice that was rampant both under Egypt's ousted leader Hosni Mubarak and also during the recent transitional period under military rule.
But other articles fall short of international laws and restrict freedoms of women and minorities, according to HRW, which reviewed the draft on the panel's website and in public hearings.
A 100-member panel is expected to finish writing the draft charter as early as next month. The new constitution then will have to be put to a public referendum within 30 days.
Heba Morayef, a researcher with HRW, said there were at least eight problematic articles currently under debate. Political rivalries between radical Salafi Islamists and the less radical but fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood members who dominate the panel are holding negotiations over amending the constitution "prey," Morayef said.
"As it stands, this draft clearly contradicts Egypt's international obligations," Morayef said.
The HRW appeal followed an outcry from progressive groups who fear Islamists are dominating the process of writing the new constitution. Some liberals have called for international pressure to ensure Egypt complies with international standards of human rights, prompting accusations from Islamists that they are inviting foreign meddling.
Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, said the panel writing the constitution has a "landmark opportunity to lay the groundwork for respecting human rights in tomorrow's Egypt."
"But its current draft fails to meet that standard because of vague language or limitations that destroy the essence of many rights," said Houry.
Calls seeking comment on the HRW appeal from Islamists members of the panel were not immediately returned.
Houry said it was "particularly shocking" that the charter, which comes after decades of abuse under Mubarak, does not mention torture, and only refers to "physical or psychological harm."
Egypt's former constitution and legislation failed to criminalize and specifically define torture, which is one of the reasons why it remains rampant and why abuses continue to be committed with impunity, the group added. Torture and abuse by security agencies under Mubarak was one of the main sparks that led to the uprising that toppled him last year.
HRW said it was also concerned by the push by Salafis to exclude articles that prohibit trafficking in women and children, allegedly because it doesn't exist in Egypt. Houry said that omitting such an article is "particularly reprehensible" because it is a serious crime under already existing Egyptian law.
Other articles, HRW said, restrict freedom of religion and worship and discriminate against minority groups such as Shiites and Bahais.
Another article seeks to install Al-Azhar, Egypt's premier Sunni Islamic institution, as the sole body authorized to interpret religious laws, effectively giving it a vetting legislative role over all laws to determine if they are in line with its interpretation of Islam.
"Nobody is thinking about human rights," Morayef said. "I think the Salafis are trying to pull the Muslim Brotherhood toward the most conservative directions."
The Brotherhood and the Salafis hold at least 52 seats on the constitutional panel, which was formed by parliament before a court dissolved the legislature. Their majority is further strengthened by Islamists unaligned with parties. The assembly includes eight women, several of them Brotherhood members, and eight Christians.