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UK lists Egypt for first time as country of concern in key rights report

While Egypt's human rights abuses are highlighted in FCO report, rights advocate says the office is still underplaying severity of crisis
Egyptian police special forces stand guard on Cairo's Tahrir Square on 25 January 2016 (AFP)

The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office has highlighted Egypt as a priority country of concern for the first time in a report released on Thursday, underlining the office's concerns about the country's human rights abuses.

The FCO's Human Rights Priority Country report also raises concerns about several other nations in the region, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where the report noted that human rights abuses are taking place on a "large scale".

While welcoming Egypt's inclusion in the list, some human rights advocates say the FCO is still understating the significance of the crisis in the North African country.

In the report, the FCO noted that while Egypt has been "completing the final institutional stage on its road map for political transition" in 2015, the human rights situation "remained poor and continued to deteriorate".

Among events of concern highlighted in the report were the sentencing in February of 230 activists to life imprisonment in a mass trial in relation to protests, the sentencing to death of former President Mohamed Morsi in May, and reports of increased incidents of torture, police brutality and forced disappearances.

Egyptian NGOs were limited in their ability to work and obtain funding, prominent human rights defenders were banned from travelling and, as restrictions on freedom of expression increased, 23 journalists were jailed for their work, the report notes.

The report concludes that in 2016, Egypt's parliament will be a "key institution" in implementing constitutional rights and improving accountability and a chance for the country to make progress on recommendations made when the country's human rights record was strongly condemned during the UN Human Rights Council's periodic review in November 2014.

“The UK will support Egyptian government and civil society initiatives to improve the human rights situation, by continuing to raise concerns both in public and private, and through project funding,” the report read.

David Mepham, the UK Director of Human Rights Watch, said that despite Egypt’s designation on the list, the FCO continues to downplay the gravity of the human rights crisis in Egypt.

“The FCO says it will support Egyptian government initiatives to improve human rights and that Egypt has completed its road map to political transition,” Mepham said. 

“But under [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi’s leadership, there are no such initiatives and the Egyptian state is trampling over democratic rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Mepham went on to list Egypt’s repressive policies of murder, imprisonment and torture of dissidents, in addition to attempt to crush the country’s “embattled but courageous human rights territory”.

“The FCO should shed its illusions and oppose unequivocally these developments,” he said.

The FCO came under attack earlier this month when MPs on the Foreign Affairs select committee said ministers had created a perception that the FCO's human rights work is no longer a priority, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The committee specifically said the FCO's failure to list Egypt in its annual human rights report sent signals that ministers had become "more hesitant in promoting and defending international human rights openly and robustly". 

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