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US joins western criticism of Egypt's human rights abuses

Joint statement from 31 countries calls on Egypt to end use of 'terrorism' charges against human rights defenders and activists
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has overseen an extensive crackdown on political dissent that has steadily tightened in recent years.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has overseen an extensive crackdown on political dissent that has steadily tightened in recent years (AFP)

The United States joined dozens of western countries in urging Egypt to end the prosecution of activists, journalists and perceived political opponents under "counterterrorism" laws, in a rare criticism of Cairo at the United Nations human rights agency.

The US, which has observer status at the UN Human Rights Council, was among 31 signatories of Friday's joint statement, the first since 2014, which called on Egypt to lift curbs on freedoms of expression and assembly.

"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," the statement said.

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The effort was led by Finland, and most cosponsors are European, joined by Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. No countries from Africa or the Middle East backed the statement.

The countries also called on Cairo to end the use of "terrorism" charges to hold human rights defenders and civil society activists in extended pre-trial detention and asked the country to stop using a "terrorism entities" list to punish individuals for exercising free expression.

Rights advocates have been sceptical that Washington will place pressure on Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom former president Donald Trump called "my favourite dictator".

Last month, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken told his Egyptian counterpart that human rights would be "central" to ties between the two countries, but his comments came just days after the Biden administration moved forward with a $197m arms sale to Egypt.

Human rights in Egypt 'at stake'

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.

Sisi has consistently denied that there are political prisoners in the country, framing the crackdown as part of a fight against terrorism. 

In addition to calling for the release of journalists and activists, Friday's statement also urged the Egyptian government to lift travel bans and asset freezes on human rights defenders, including staff at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Three of its staff members were arrested last November.

Egypt's foreign ministry had accused EIPR of operating illegally, an accusation the group denies.

The trio had been provisionally released, but the arrests were met with criticism from the then-Trump administration and European countries.

"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.

"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."

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