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Egypt is an 'open-air prison for critics' of Sisi's government: Amnesty

Egypt has seen 'unprecedented' attack on freedom of expression under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Amnesty International says
Sisi came to power in 2013 after ousting his predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup (Reuters)

Egypt has become "more dangerous" than ever for government critics, according to Amnesty International, which warned that Egyptian activists face an unprecedented attack on freedom of expression under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government.

In a statement on Thursday, on the eve of the eight-year anniversary of the start of Egypt's 2011 revolution, which toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, Amnesty said "the space for dissent is being crushed out of existence" in the country.

The rights group pointed to the arrests of at least 113 people "simply for peacefully expressing their views" in 2018, while also accusing the Egyptian government of detaining people for months without trial.

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Some government critics have been subjected to unfair trials, including those held in military courts, Amnesty said, while others have faced charges such as "membership in terrorist groups" or "disseminating false news".

"Today it is more dangerous to openly criticise the government in Egypt than at any other time in the country's recent history," said Najia Bounaim, the group's North Africa campaigns director, in the statement.

“Over the past year, people who dared to criticise the government have been arrested and sent to prison, often held in solitary confinement or subjected to enforced disappearances simply for posting their opinions on social media, giving media interviews, denouncing sexual harassment and even for supporting certain football clubs," she said.

"In some cases, those arrested had done nothing at all. Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's administration, Egypt has been converted into an open-air prison for critics."

Crackdown on dissent

Human rights groups have reported for several years on the crackdown on human rights and civil society activists in Egypt, which became especially pronounced after Sisi took power in a 2013 military coup that deposed his democratically elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian authorities have been criticised for arresting scores of critical voices across the country, including human rights activists, journalists and NGO workers, and detaining perceived government opponents on politically motivated grounds for often indefinite lengths of time.

On 9 January, pro-democracy activist Ahmed Douma was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of clashing with security forces after a lengthy trial process.

Today it is more dangerous to openly criticise the government in Egypt than at any other time in the country's recent history

- Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International

Douma is a founding member of the April 6 youth movement, which was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and played a leading role in the revolution against Mubarak's rule that same year.

He is among several pro-democracy figures across Egypt who have been detained in recent years.

Last month, Egyptian women's rights activist Amal Fathy was let out of detention after a court ordered her conditional release on bail.

Fathy was arrested in May after she posted a video on Facebook alleging she was sexually harassed at a bank and accusing the Egyptian authorities of failing to protect women.

The Egyptian authorities also have accused her of "membership in a terrorist group", in relation to her membership in the April 6 youth movement.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, an Egyptian court sentenced a television presenter to one year in prison for interviewing a gay man last year.

Mohamed al-Gheiti, who has expressed his stance against homosexuality on several occasions, was accused of promoting homosexuality and contempt of religion, AFP reported.

For his part, Sisi has denied reports of the crackdown on freedom of expression and the widespread detention of critics of his government.

In a sit-down interview with CBS News's 60 Minutes programme in early January, Sisi said "there are no political prisoners in Egypt", despite widespread reports that the country holds tens of thousands of people behind bars for political reasons.