Prisoner releases, judicial independence ignite backstage debate, as National Dialogue board determine agenda

“In truth, we had intensive discussions,” Diaa Rashwan told around 200 journalists assembled on Tuesday evening after another five-hour closed-door coordinating session for the National Dialogue, the state initiative being heralded as a forum for political discussion and inclusivity.

The heated debate was sparked, according to two members of the board of trustees who were present in Tuesday’s closed talks, by two proposals during the session: one to apply pressure on the public prosecutor for the release of certain political detainees, and another for greater adherence to and regulation of the principle of judicial independence.

The 19-member dialogue board, headed by Rashwan and appointed to coordinate the dialogue after the president called for the initiative in April, gathered for its second sitting on Tuesday. while the first established the exclusion criteria for participants and some principles for the code of conduct, board members aimed at this time to set up subcommittees and determine the topics and issues that will populate the agenda of the dialogue’s open sessions.

During the session, some representatives of the Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of seven socially liberal opposition parties, proposed that the dialogue submit demands to Public Prosecutor Hamada al-Sawy for the release of any prisoners held without trial in relation to investigations regarding publishing false news on their social media pages, given that these detainees are not involved in violence or incitement against state bodies, according to the two board members, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.

Securing the release of political prisoners has been a primary talking point for those in the opposition alliance, with an early proposal suggesting that the civil movement should not participate unless particular people were released. While a number of detainees have been released since April, when the president announced the dialogue, observers note that the process has been slow, and disappointing.

rashwan responded to the proposal on Tuesday, according to the two board members, by saying that only defendants or their lawyers can address the prosecutor on this matter and that the dialogue’s board of trustees has no legal competency to do so.

Yet a remnant of the discussion made it into Rashwan’s statement to the press after the session. “The board of trustees appeals and hopes,” said Rashwan, “that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continues to issue decisions to grant presidential pardon to those [prisoners] who did not incite or commit violent acts.” The statement was voted on and supported by a majority of the 19 board members, according to one of the members.

An argument was also made, said the two members, for the board to issue a recommendation to ensure the independence of the judiciary. Board member Amr Hisham Rabie, the deputy director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies suggested that the board recommend a law on judicial appointments to be issued quickly, in order to prevent members of the judiciary from being appointed to second jobs in non- judicial positions.

The 2014 Constitution included a stipulation that the House of Representatives should issue a law on judicial appointments by 2019, which it is yet to do. Currently, judges are able to hold positions as advisors to members of government, positions in electoral committees, or, as in the case of Mahmoud Fawzy, to head the dialogue’s technical secretariat and the Supreme Media Regulatory Council.

While the proposal excited controversy among the board members, it was ultimately decided to include the issue in the agenda of the subcommittees handling political affairs, said the sources.

Ultimately, while the dialogue will be split into three branches, with subcommittees to discuss political, economic and social issues, Rashwan told journalists, the political issues took precedence on Tuesday and “a lot of time was taken to discuss them.”

Exercising political rights and representation in Parliament and political parties, local governance, and human rights and freedoms, will form the three headline areas of discussion around political issues, Rashwan said that the board had decided.

Members of the board, meanwhile, were selected to head two subgroups that will present suggestions in the next coordinating session for the primary areas of focus regarding economic and social issues.

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