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High commissioner for human rights: Egypt uses state of emergency to systematically restrict civil society

Egypt has used the state of emergency imposed in April 2017 to systematically silence civil society and close civic space, under the guise of countering terrorism, said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in a speech on Monday.

“Darker and more dangerous,” was Hussein’s description of the human rights situation in 40 countries that include Egypt in the speech he gave before the chair of the UN Human Rights Council.

Hussein said that his office had received reports of repressive measures in Egypt, including increasing “waves of arrests, arbitrary detention, blacklisting, travel bans, asset freezes, intimidation and other reprisals against human rights defenders, journalists, political dissidents and anyone affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“We are also receiving increased allegations of torture in detention, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and trials of civilians in military courts,” the high commissioner said.

Hussein also expressed concern about the campaign to block access to press and human rights organization websites, noting that access to 400 sites has been blocked since May.

“Brutality and intimidation of the country’s most thoughtful voices, cutting off the vital social and economic services provided by NGOs, and blocking information can only exacerbate radicalism and instability,” Hussein said.

Hussein’s comments follow the publication of a United Nations Committee Against Torture annual report on September 9, which asserted torture in Egypt is practiced systematically.

“Torture is carried out by Egyptian military, police, and prison officials for the purposes of punishing protesters and, since 2013, members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, to coerce confessions, and pressure detainees to implicate others in crimes,” the UN committee’s report to the UN General Assembly asserted.

Egyptian government officials cited in the report impugned the validity of the allegations, saying they are “based on hearsay and lacked supporting evidence.” While Egyptian authorities accepted a number of the committee’s recommendations and stated that they were already being implemented, other recommendations were rejected, notably the practice of solitary confinement, the establishment of an independent body to investigate allegations of torture, forced disappearances and ill treatment, in addition to restricting military courts’ jurisdiction to crimes of an exclusively military character and prohibiting so-called “virginity testing” and forensic anal examination, both of which are a form of sexual violence in practice.

The report comes days ahead of the UN General Assembly 72nd session in which will convene in New York on September 12. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is expected to attend and amid a wave of sharp criticism faced by the Egyptian government over torture and human rights abuses.

In a report released on September 6 based on interviews with a number of victims who were tortured between 2014 and 2016, the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch asserted that torture in Egypt is “widespread and systematic” and may amount to “a crime against humanity.”

According to the report, torture takes the form of beatings, electrocution, suspension in painful and stress positions, and sometimes rape.

The recent international reports have drawn criticism in Egypt from pro-regime figures, notably journalist and Member of Parliament Mostafa Bakry, who wrote in his Monday column on that “the goal [of the reports] is to create an atmosphere for a mass media campaign” against Sisi to advance a political agenda.

In a press conference held on Sunday, National Press Authority head Karam Gabr said in a press conference on Sunday that the authority plans to cooperate with State Information Service to respond to the Human Rights Watch report through meetings with newspaper editors and foreign journalists and correspondents.

Parliament’s Human Rights Committee is expected to hold an emergency meeting on Monday with a delegation from the state-appointed National Council for Human Rights, deputy foreign affairs minister and the State Information Service to discuss mechanisms to respond to the report issued by the New York-based organization.

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