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Egypt’s human rights abuses condemned at UN

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (Keystone/Presidency of Sudan via AP)

Members of the Human Rights Council have called on Egypt to end its prosecution of journalists, activists and political opposition figures and appealed for the immediate release of those detained under-counter terrorism laws.

A group of 31 states including Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Egypt’s close ally the United States issued a rare joint statement on Egypt to the Council on Friday calling on the government to end its repression of freedoms of expression and assembly. The last such statement on the country was in 2014.

“We urge Egypt to guarantee space for civil society – including human rights defenders – to work without fear of intimidation, harassment, arrest, detention or any other form of reprisal,” Finland’s ambassador Kirsti Kauppi, who delivered the statement on behalf of the signatories, told the Council.

Countries also called on Egypt to lift travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders, singling out three staff members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who were arrested last November after briefing diplomats in Cairo. Egypt’s foreign ministry has accused EIPR of operating illegally.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has been in power since 2014 after leading the military's overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, has sought to cement his grip on power by cracking down on any perceived political dissenters.

According to Amnesty International, President al-Sisi’s security forces have reportedly arrested, detained or prosecuted thousands, including human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and journalists. Al-Sisi insists there are no political prisoners in the country.

More than 100 NGOs from around the world wrote to UN member states last month warning that the Egyptian government is attempting to “annihilate” human rights organisations and eradicate the human rights movement in the country through “sustained, widespread, and systematic attacks”.

The organisations asked UN member states to adopt a resolution establishing a monitoring and reporting mechanism on Egypt. The 12 March declaration has been welcomed as a significant step forward.

“Countries should continue to make it clear to the Egyptian government that it will no longer have a carte blanche to arbitrarily imprison, torture or violate the right to life or unlawfully kill people,” said Bahey Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies which was a signatory of the letter, in a statement.

The last joint declaration on the human rights situation in Egypt at the Council was delivered in March 2014 and co-signed by 26 member states.

Since that time, there have been reports of forced disappearances, torture and detention of perceived opposition figures. According to Amnesty, detainees are regularly held on unfounded terrorism-related charges and do not receive a fair trial, and many have been executed. The authorities have also used morality and debauchery laws to detain women, sexual violence survivors and LGBTI individuals and activists.

UN bodies have found both arbitrary detention and torture to be systemic in Egypt, with the UN Committee against Torture saying that the facts gathered during a 2017 inquiry led to the “inescapable conclusion” that torture is a systemic practice in the country.

"Today's declaration sends a clear message to the Egyptian authorities that the world will no longer turn a blind eye to their relentless campaign to crush peaceful dissent,” said Kevin Whelan, Amnesty International representative to the UN in Geneva, in a statement.

“The authorities must take urgent action to comply with their obligations under international law, starting by releasing the thousands of men and women arbitrarily detained, protecting those in custody from torture and other ill-treatment, and ending the crackdown on peaceful activism.”