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Egypt's former top auditor says his trial is political

In an interview with Al-Monitor, the former head of Egypt’s Accountability State Authority, Hisham Geneina, speaks about his controversial statements on corruption that landed him a jail sentence, calling the judiciary “flawed.”
Egyptian judge Hisham Geneina, the former head of Egypt's Central Auditing Authority, the country's anti-corruption agency, talks during an interview with AFP in Cairo on June 23, 2016.
Geneina was fired by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and is to stand trial facing  a charge of spreading false news and disturbing the peace that carries a potential one-year jail sentence. / AFP / KHALED DESOUKI        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO — Controversy erupted in Egypt earlier this year after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decision to detain and fire Hisham Geneina from his position as head of the Accountability State Authority (ASA), the country’s central auditing agency, on charges of publicizing false news and claims, based on the statement he made about corruption costs in state institutions reaching 600 billion Egyptian pounds ($68 billion) over four years.

Despite the fact that the head of the ASA has immunity by the constitution and the law, Sisi had issued a decree on July 9, 2015, granting himself the right to dismiss heads and members of regulatory organizations and independent bodies in case one of them commits actions that endanger the security and safety of the country.

Geneina was sentenced to a year in prison and a fine, and is now awaiting an Oct. 20 court date for a decision on his appeal.

Geneina spoke exclusively to Al-Monitor, confirming the number he announced concerning the cost of corruption and saying he possessed documents proving his claims. Geneina also attacked the fact-finding committee that was formed by the president to review the credibility of his data, as he considered the committee too biased and underqualified to review the reports of the ASA.

Geneina attacked the judiciary in Egypt and considered it “flawed” and described his trial as “political.”

“During the interrogation by the prosecution, I said that these investigations and accusations were mainly political, and I insisted that my words be recorded. … Unfortunately, I could not obtain, to this moment, the verdict issued against me so that I could petition against it before the Court of Appeals," Geneina said.

Geneina revealed corruption in some sovereign sectors and authorities. “During our examination of the allocation of plots of lands in urban communities and greenbelts in new cities, we discovered that companies affiliated with the General Intelligence Directorate were allocated plots of land that are distributed among workers in the directorate. There were also lands allocated to members in the Public Prosecution and the Administrative Control Authority,” Geneina added.

The full text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  How accurate is the number you had announced concerning the size of corruption in some state sectors, which you claimed reached 600 billion Egyptian pounds?

Geneina:  The number is correct, and it constitutes only a simple part of the corruption in state sectors and ministries during four years marked by the beginning of 2012 until the end of 2015. The real numbers are horrifying as they far exceed 600 billion [Egyptian] pounds. We have documents that confirm everything we announced. The technical committee of the ASA made very accurate calculations and analyses of the corruption costs in every ministry and sector. This is very difficult for anyone to do, even for professors at universities, as it requires accumulated experience that only comes through practice.

Al-Monitor:  The fact-finding committee that the president formed to review the numbers confirmed that these figures were inaccurate, exaggerated and aimed to misguide the public opinion. How do you respond to that?

Geneina:  Two things need to be clarified first. The first one is about the mechanism through which this committee was formed, and the second has to do with the report it issued.

The president issued a decree to form a fact-finding committee headed by the head of the Administrative Control Authority with the membership of representatives from some ministries such as Planning, Finance and Interior to check the accuracy of the numbers I announced about corruption. However, with all due respect, members of the committee cannot be part of the executive power. All its members, even the head of the Administrative Control Authority, are subject to oversight of the ASA. We also issued a report before that proved the involvement of leading officials in the Administrative Control Authority in financial violations. How [can] the head of this authority be appointed as head of the fact-finding committee? This is very strange and illogical.

To assure transparency and neutrality, I suggested that the parliament form the committee, as the parliament is not subject to oversight by the ASA and is not an opponent of the ASA. Therefore, the committee it forms will be impartial and will ward off suspicion of pressure by the executive power and its institutions.

The second part has to do with the formed committee’s lack of any experience in accurate auditing calculations. With all due respect to the head of the Administrative Control Authority, the head is usually an officer either in the military or the police whose auditing experience does not qualify to evaluate the work of the ASA or to analyze complicated financial lists. This is an accumulated experience that stems from practice.

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned that there is corruption and squandering of money in sovereign institutions of the state. What are these institutions you are referring to?

Geneina:  First, I have reservations about the word "sovereign." I have no knowledge of anything called a sovereign institution. We are all citizens before the constitution and the law that guarantees us absolute equality. I have never heard, during all the years I spent in my career, about an institution being above the law. The constitution allows oversight over all institutions of the state, including the presidency. The only exception goes for the parliament and the General Intelligence as their regulating private laws prohibit oversight by the ASA.

However, during our examination of the allocation of some lands in urban communities and greenbelts in new cities, we discovered that some companies affiliated with the General Intelligence were allocated lands. These plots of lands are distributed among those who work in the General Intelligence. There were also lands allocated for members of the Public Prosecution and the Administrative Control Authority. Such corruption through takeover of state lands by these institutions is done in a standardized and systematic way at prices much lower than the market price. This is intended to corrupt these institutions until they are no longer capable of detecting corruption of the minister himself.

Al-Monitor:  Did you face any pressure from state institutions after you announced the corruption report?

Geneina:  The pressure we faced was during the work of the ASA technical committee. Some ministries hindered its work and prevented it from doing its work so that it would not carry out its oversight duty. However, after I announced the 600 billion [Egyptian-pound] corruption, I was surprised at the fact-finding committee’s accusations [that] were false and based on no evidence whatsoever. Then, the public prosecutor issued a gag order. After that, I faced no pressure. As I said, I possess all the documents that prove that the cost of corruption exceeds 600 billion.

Al-Monitor:  Why did the court decide to put you in jail for one year and fine you 20,000 Egyptian pounds for publicizing false news, given that you based your statement on evidence and documents you possess?

Geneina:  During the interrogation by the prosecution, I said that these charges and investigations are mainly political and I insisted that my words be recorded. I hoped that I would not be tried for uncovering the corruption, its size and places and those who are responsible for it. However, I thought I would be tried for my alleged dereliction in failing to uncover corruption, or at least failing to do my work and professional duty, since the authentic role of regulatory institutions is to uncover corruption spots and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unfortunately, I could not obtain, to this moment, the verdict issued against me sentencing me to detention and a fine so that we could read and understand it. My lawyer had even presented a request to obtain a photocopy of the verdict so that we could petition against it before the Court of Appeals. However, he could not get it. This shows how flawed the judiciary in Egypt has become. This has happened to me, so can you imagine what ordinary citizens go through when they try to resort to a just judiciary?

The charges leveled at me are publicizing rumors that aim at threatening the public order and safety and harming the supreme interests of the state, which are very broad charges that can end up with anyone in jail with no probable cause except that the executive power considers the person threatening to the public order and safety.

Al-Monitor:  Some may wonder why you did not submit these reports to the competent authorities to take the necessary measures instead of presenting them to the public and causing this confusion.

Geneina:  Article No. 217 of the constitution grants regulatory institutions the right to publish their reports to the public in ultimate transparency. We did not violate the law in any means. Moreover, Egypt has signed the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which obligates regulatory institutions to make their reports publicly accessible, as public oversight is the supervision that really supports regulatory institutions. Such a public role protects public money. Therefore, whose interests does it serve to make public opinion absent and to neutralize public oversight over public money?

Al-Monitor:  President Sisi issued a decree to dismiss you from your office based on investigations carried out by the State Security Prosecution with you. Why did you appeal against the decree to the judiciary?

Geneina:  The president of the ASA cannot be dismissed by the president of the Republic or by anyone else, as the former’s position is immunized by the power of the constitution. Moreover, the president of the republic himself is subject to oversight by the ASA. However, let me explain to you why I appealed to the judiciary.

First, the president of the republic has issued my dismissal order based on a decree concerning heads of regulatory organizations and independent bodies that he issued in the absence of a parliament. It was also issued at a time when it was not an emergency that necessitates giving him the exception of using his constitutional right to issue decrees. Hence, it was against the constitution, and I appealed against it.

Second, even if, for the sake of the argument, we assumed the decree issued by the president valid, such law includes the heads of all regulatory institutions and is described as “general law.” However, at the ASA, we have our specific law that regulates the mechanism through which the head of the ASA is questioned and held accountable. A legal rule states that general law does not apply over a specific one. Hence, the ASA is governed by the internal specific law only, not the law issued by the president of the republic. Moreover, the internal ASA law gives immunity to the agency’s head and guarantees that he or she will not be dismissed unless they agree to such.

Third, the immunity granted by the specific law of the ASA to its head is not a mere matter of formality, as it is conventional in the whole world and happens in all regulatory organizations. The reason is to grant regulatory institution complete independence from the executive power and to allow the ASA to carry out its work protecting public properties without limitations. The question here is how regulatory organizations can enjoy independence while the executive power is infiltrating them like that.

For the aforementioned reasons, I presented my appeal. I did it not to recover my position but rather to patronize the rule of law and to guarantee that other heads will not be subject to the same fate.

Al-Monitor:  Do you believe the state is deliberately trying to hide corruption and fight you?

Geneina:  I do not think that the fight is with [me] personally, but rather with the role that an institution plays. During my entire career, I have sought to continue adopting that role to preserve the public money and not connive in any incident of corruption, regardless of who its perpetrator is or what their position is. Maybe this is the sin I committed. Probably this is when I crossed the line.

I hope that the Egyptian state with all its values will not fall into a settling of political scores within some security or intelligence agencies who issue false reports. My uncovering of the corruption of some of their members does not mean that I do not respect them. I appreciate the role they play in society.

Al-Monitor:  Are existing laws enough to guarantee independence of regulatory institutions in Egypt? Or do we need new laws to safeguard their effectiveness?

Geneina:  The current legislations and constitutional articles are enough to ensure complete independence for regulatory organizations. However, what is the value of a constitution that ensures equality between the president and an ordinary citizen when it is not brought into effect?

Constitutional articles ensure the right to absolute privacy and respect the sanctity of the private lives of citizens such as not tapping their phones, calls or messaging except under a grounded judicial request for an urgent reason that the investigation necessitates. However, what value do they have when they are being violated and not put into effect?

What value does a constitution that states that regulatory organizations are independent from the executive power have while they are devoid of independence, prevented from practicing their role to protect public money and their heads are subject to dismissal in the manner we saw?

Let me say the reason why the president made a statement that Egypt is a semi-state. The answer is that state now has semi-institutions. We have a parliament which is not a parliament. Parliaments in the rest of the world oversee the work of the executive power. We have an ASA that cannot practice its regulatory duty. These are all decorations with no tangible use.

Al-Monitor:  Why, then, does the head of the executive power fight those who uncover and fight corruption?

Geneina:  The president is the one who should be asked such question. Did he receive information that Hisham Geneina works on demolishing the Egyptian state? If I am convicted, they should give me a just and fair trial.

However, whenever I make such a statement, they consider it an insult to the state and an attempt to demolish its institutions. Who demolishes countries are those who connive in and cover up corruption, not the ones who uncover it.

Is it even possible that institutions of the state can be demolished by a mere statement about the existence of corruption? The president himself said that we live in a semi-state. Why isn’t he accused of demolishing state institutions with this statement? Which is more harmful to the state, announcing that there is 600 billion [Egyptian pounds] worth of corruption in some institutions — while it is part of my duty — or the president’s statement?

There was also an official statement by Dr. Ashraf El Araby, former head of the Public Taxes Authority, where he said that the office of the Large Taxpayer Center at the Taxes Authority has spotted 350 billion [Egyptian pounds] worth of tax evasion by businessmen. Even though that statement was made from inside the Tax Authority, [Araby] was appointed by President Sisi in the parliament and he is currently a lawmaker. Why did they leave him alone?

What I want to say is that I respect all institutions of the state and that the role regulatory institutions play will not complete without a strong political will and institutions that support such a role. The reports issued by regulatory organizations are useless as long as they are being thrown into the archives.

Al-Monitor:  You have been accused of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, especially since you were appointed to your post as head of the ASA during its time in power. How do you respond to these charges?

Geneina:  I challenge whoever ... has evidence on that to present it. I think no one is secure against such accusations. Even Sisi supporters have started to be accused of belonging to the Muslim Brothers.

It is true that the ex-president, [Mohammed] Morsi, brought me to this position. However, it does not mean that I work for him or for anyone that followed. Morsi appointed Sisi minister of defense, Gen. Mohamed Ibrahim, the ex-minister of interior, Gen. Mohamed Omar Wahby, former head of the ACA. Therefore, this is institutional work. Being appointed by a president cannot possibly mean that I work for him or belong to his group.

Al-Monitor:  Do you consider what happened on June 30 a revolution or a coup?

Geneina:  I am totally convinced that the Egyptian people took to the streets in two revolutions for the purpose of reform. The first one was on January 25, 2011, and the second on June 39, 2013. With all due respect for those who say that what happened on June 30 is a coup, I want to tell them that the military institution only supported the public consensus.

It was also very clear on June 30 that there was strong resentment and displeasure about the Brotherhood’s regime. In the end, I absolutely respect the will of the public.

Al-Monitor:  What is the message that you want to send to the ruling authority or the Egyptian people?

Geneina:  All I want is to absolve myself before God and history with a fair and just verdict. I did not lie or publicize false news. I wished to be in my office until the trial is over, as it is illogical that the president dismisses me before a court proves me guilty.

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