Egypt releases activists as rights record criticized

Cairo (AFP)

Egypt released six activists on Sunday, including journalist Esraa Abdel-Fattah, a symbol of the 2011 revolution, just days after Washington warned Cairo against a crackdown on human rights activists.

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2014, the former army chief has overseen a broad crackdown on dissent.

The United States on Wednesday warned Egypt not to target human rights activists, saying the problem would be a factor in selling arms to its Arab ally.

Analysts said the latest releases were aimed at easing international pressure on Egypt’s human rights record.

The prosecution ordered Abdel-Fattah’s release after nearly 22 months in pre-trial detention, lawyer Khaled Ali said, posting photos of his release from prison.

She was released on Saturday with Abdel Nasser Ismail, leader of the Popular Alliance party, and Gamal El-Gammal, journalist and opposition figure.

In another surprise announcement on Sunday, the prosecution ordered the release of prominent lawyer and human rights activist Mahienour El-Masri and journalists Motaz Wadnan and Mostafa El-Asar.

All had been in pre-trial detention on charges, including dissemination of “false news” and cooperation “with terrorists” or “illegal groups”.

Security and judicial sources said they had all been released pending an investigation into the charges against them.

These statements “aim to ease internal tensions and could have positive effects on Egypt’s image abroad,” said Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, professor of political science at Cairo University.

“But I doubt that will change the situation because there are a lot of political prisoners” still being held, he added.

Also on Sunday, notorious journalist Abdel Nasser Salam was arrested a week after criticizing Sisi on Facebook, senior security officials said without providing any details of his detention.

Former editor of the state newspaper al-Ahram, Salam accused the president of endangering Egyptian interests by failing to resolve a dispute with Ethiopia over its dam under construction on the Nile, calling on him to “resign at once “.

– Warning from Washington –

Egypt has been severely criticized for its human rights record, especially from the United Nations and the United States.

Washington on Wednesday warned Cairo not to target human rights activists after prominent activist Hossam Bahgat was indicted on charges relating to his use of social media.

“We have conveyed to the Egyptian government our firm belief that individuals like Hossam Bahgat should not be targeted for expressing their views peacefully,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters. .

When asked if the issue would affect a large arms package being considered for Egypt, Price declined to discuss funding, but said: “Human rights in all fields are something we let’s look very closely to make those decisions “.

President Joe Biden promised as a candidate that there would be no more “blank checks” for Sisi, who formed a close alliance with Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

In March, 31 countries staged a rare oral reprimand against Egypt at the UN Human Rights Council, expressing concern over its use of anti-terrorism laws against critics of the government.

Primarily European countries, but also including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, stressed “limited space for civil society and political opposition.”

“We are deeply concerned about the enforcement of anti-terrorism legislation against human rights activists, LGBTI people, journalists, politicians and lawyers,” said Kirsti Kauppi, Ambassador of Finland to the UN in Geneva, in a joint statement.

– ‘Fake news’ –

In 2008, three years before the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring uprising, Abdel-Fattah created a Facebook page to support the strikers and call for political reforms.

The 43-year-old was arrested in October 2019 for “spreading false news” and “collaborating with a terrorist group”, triggering international condemnation.

She was imprisoned under Mubarak and opposed the Muslim Brotherhood when they took power in Egypt in 2012, supporting protests that led to the ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi a year later.

El-Masri was arrested in September 2019 following rare mass anti-Sisi protests and was also detained for publishing “fake news” and collaborating with “terrorists”.

Wadnan and Asar were accused of joining “illegal groups” and spreading “fake news”.

Ismail, also released on Sunday, was arrested in September 2019 for “participating in a terrorist group”. Journalist El-Gammal was arrested in February.

Under Egyptian law, pre-trial detention can be extended for up to two years.

“We have been expecting for some time that releases will be made,” editor-in-chief of Al-Shorouk newspaper Mohammed Saad Abdel Hafiz told AFP.

“Last week 150 little-known activists were released, and we heard some officials say others will be released.”

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Guillermo Russell

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