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EU to monitor Egypt poll despite crackdown, concerns

Egyptian interim PM enforces 'terrorist' Brotherhood verdict as youth groups mobilize against protest law
This is Ashton’s 4th visit to Cairo since Sisi’s ouster of former president Morsi (AFP)

European Union monitors will supervise Egypt's upcoming presidential election under an agreement in principle reached Thursday between visiting EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and foreign minister Nabil Fahmy.

A joint statement said the two sides agreed that an EU "election observation mission" would be deployed at the invitation of the Egyptian government.

The statement said Ashton welcomed the fact that the necessary agreements will be concluded shortly, "allowing for unhindered movement of observers throughout the country and access to all legal political interlocutors".

It added that the "mission will conduct its work and make its assessments impartially and neutrally" and that "both sides look forward to a transparent and credible election".

Egypt's May 26-27 presidential election is likely to be swept by the retired army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who deposed democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi last July.

The only other main candidate is leftwing politician Hamdeen Sabbahi, who came third in the 2012 election that Morsi won.

The election will go into a second round on June 16-17 if there is no outright winner.

Ashton arrived in Cairo on Wednesday for a two-day visit. This is her 4th visit to Cairo after the ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed "deep concern" on Thursday over death sentences handed down in Egypt against 528 people.

Meeting this week in Strasbourg, two PACE committees on political affairs and human rights denounced as "unacceptable" the mass death penalties for supporters of ousted president Morsi "on charges related to the events in July and August 2013, including the killing of a policeman".

The parliamentary assembly urged the Egyptian authorities to guarantee a fair trial for the defendants, "a pre-condition for its smooth democratic transition, in particular on the eve of presidential elections".

On 24 March, 528 individuals were sentenced to death in Egypt on charges related to the events leading to the ousting of the government of first democratically-elected president in 2013. At least 600 more individuals are currently under trial for similar charges.

All the defendants, including 397 people being tried in absentia, faced charges of committing violence in Minya, south of Cairo, in August 2013 following the violent dispersal by security forces of pro-democracy sit-ins in the capital and Giza, which left hundreds of protesters dead.

The international community, including officials from the United Nations, EU, the US and human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International, have also condemned the death sentences.

PM enforces 'terrorist' Brotherhood verdict

Egyptian interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab on Thursday issued an executive order to put into effect an earlier court ruling designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a "terrorist organization."

Mahlab's decision, published in Egypt's official gazette, stipulated that anyone who " funds, participates in, organizes or promotes the group's activities in word, writing or by any other method" be subject to the terrorism-related articles of the Egyptian penal code.

The prime minister asked police forces to secure universities and students "against the terrorism of the Brotherhood."

Egypt's Court for Urgent Matters in February listed the Muslim Brotherhood – which propelled Morsi to power in 2012 polls – as a "terrorist" organization.

Last December, Egypt designated the Brotherhood as a "terrorist" organization following an attack on a Nile Delta security headquarters in which 16 people, mostly police, were killed.

The Brotherhood strenuously denies any involvement in the attack.

Mahlab's decision drew immediate rebuke from the Brotherhood.

"The decision has no basis. We're currently studying an appeal against it," a member of the Brotherhood's legal committee, requesting anonymity, told Anadolu Agency.

He described the decision as part of an attempt to "liquidate a political faction that was until recently ruling the country."

Youth groups mobilize against protest law

Meanwhile, a group of Egyptian youth groups have joined forces in a weeklong campaign starting Saturday to "bring down" a law that regulates street protests, which critics say is used to suppress any dissent voice and restrict peaceful demonstrations.

In a press conference outside Egypt's Journalists Syndicate, the groups said that drive would feature a legal campaign against the constitutionality of the law and protests in universities nationwide as well as outside the Ittihadiya presidential palace to call for the Egyptian interim authorities to revoke the law.

Among the groups are the April 6 youth group, the Revolutionary Socialists, Strong Egypt Party's Youths, and Revolution Path Front (Thuwar).

On Monday, an Egyptian court upheld three-year jail terms for prominent activists Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 protest movement, leading group member Mohamed Adel and prominent activist Ahmed Douma for staging an "unlicensed" protest last year.

All three were found guilty in January of assaulting security forces and staging an unlicensed protest outside the Egyptian prosecutor-general's office in downtown Cairo last November.

Maher, Adel and Douma were among the young activists who spearheaded Egypt's January 2011 revolution, which ended autocratic president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

The three activists had also supported last year's June 30 demonstrations, which paved the way for the July 3 ouster of Mohamed Morsi – Egypt's first freely elected president – by the army.

The protest law, adopted by the government last November, makes it necessary for organizers to submit a written request to the Interior Ministry three days prior to staging a protest.

It gives the ministry the right to deny protest organizers permission if the planned event is deemed a "threat to security or public safety" or if security conditions are deemed "inappropriate."

According to the law, violators will either be fined or imprisoned – penalties that have provoked outrage on the part of many Egyptian politicians and activists who say the legislation curbs freedoms and gives police free rein to crack down on popular expressions of dissent.