The United States has joined Western countries in urging Egypt to end the prosecution of activists, journalists and perceived political opponents under “counterterrorism” laws in a rare criticism of the Middle East country at the United Nations human rights agency.
The US, which has observer status at the UN Human Rights Council, was among 31 signatories of the joint statement on Egypt, the first since 2014, which called on the government to lift curbs on freedoms of expression and assembly.
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Friday’s statement demanded in particular that Egypt end the use of “terrorism” charges to hold human rights defenders and civil society activists in extended pre-trial detention.
Washington has avoided criticising Egypt, a close ally, but US President Joe Biden has promised to speak out against human rights violations and abuses of the rule of law worldwide. Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi “my favourite dictator”.
El-Sisi, who overthrew the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 coup, has overseen an extensive crackdown on political dissent that has steadily tightened in recent years.
An estimated 60,000 political prisoners are being held in Egyptian jails, according to rights groups, and the country is considered the world’s third worst jailer of journalists, behind China and Turkey.
El-Sisi has said there are no political prisoners in Egypt and that stability and security are paramount.
“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 said, reading out the statement to the Geneva forum.
“That includes lifting travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders – including EIPR staff,” she said, referring to three activists from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights arrested last November after briefing senior diplomats in Cairo.
Egypt’s foreign ministry had accused EIPR of operating illegally, an accusation the group denies.
The trio had been provisionally released, but the arrests galvanised support for the move in the council, activists and diplomats said.
“It’s been seven years since there has been any kind of collective action on Egypt at the Human Rights Council, all the while the situation has declined sharply – this is a crucial step,” Kevin Whelan, Amnesty International representative to the UN in Geneva, told Reuters.
“We’re at the point where the survival of the human rights movement in Egypt is at stake.”
Most of the signatory countries are European, joined by Australia, Canada and New Zealand. No countries from the African or Middle East region backed the statement.