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New law allows Egypt's Sisi to choose top judges

Measure has been criticised by rights groups as threat to judiciary's independence
Entrance of State Council's building, Egypt's highest administrative court (AFP)

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signed into a law on Thursday a bill that would grant him powers to appoint senior judges, including the heads of high courts and judicial committees. The measure has been criticised by rights groups as a threat to the judiciary's independence.

The new law allows the president to pick the chairs of top committees from three deputy chairs chosen by each body's supreme council from the seven most-senior judges. Prior to the new rules, the most senior judge on a committee was automatically selected as its chair.

Committees include the Court of Cassation, the State Council, the Administrative Prosecution Authority and the State Lawsuits Authority, according to Amnesty International.

The Judges Club, an informal association for judges, had urged Sisi not to ratify the proposal, which was controversially passed by the parliament on Wednesday. The judicial appointments bill appeared suddenly on the lawmakers' agenda without discussion, Egyptian media reported.

Mohamed Abdel Mohsen Mansour, president of the Judges Club, slammed parliament for passing the "unconstitutional" bill, according to Egyptian publication Al-Masry Al-Yawm. He called on fellow judges to reject the new law.

Amnesty International also denounced the law, saying that it may erode the independence "of the country's already beleaguered judiciary".

"Through this law, the state is seeking to further consolidate its grip on power and neuter two of the highest courts who have at times acted as a check on the executive," Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

While Egyptian judges have helped Sisi's cause in cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, sentencing hundreds of its members to lengthy jail terms, Egyptian courts have also derailed the transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in a deal brokered by the president.

Egyptian energy companies

In other news on Egypt on Friday, a Swiss court rejected an appeal by Egyptian energy companies after a French court last year ordered them to pay $2bn in compensation to state-owned Israel Electric Corporation (IEC), the Israeli utility said.

An IEC statement on Friday said that Egyptian Natural Gas and Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation were liable because they were unable to fulfill their commitment to provide it with natural gas for its power stations.

Egypt sold gas to Israel under a 20-year agreement that collapsed in 2012 after months of repeated attacks by insurgents on a pipeline serving Israel in Egypt's remote Sinai peninsula.

In 2015, an international arbitrator said Egypt should pay nearly $2bn in compensation because of the halt in the gas supply, leading to tensions between the two neighbours.

The breakdown in supply had forced IEC to revert to using more expensive diesel and fuel oil to drive its generators, which also raised pollution levels in the country.