US govt report slams Egypt on human rights

A report issued last Friday by the United States government draws an ugly picture of the state of human rights in Egypt, but also gives a few signs of optimism.

The report, released by the US State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor as part of an annual set of country reports, says that abuse of prisoners, restrictions on free speech and assembly, and mistreatment of minorities and women are all common violations in Egypt. The report repeatedly cites the Emergency Law–in force since President Hosni Mubarak took power in 1981–as cover for government human rights abuses, which are often in violation of both Egyptian and international law.

The US Secretary of State called the reports "an essential tool" for activists, journalists and scholars who work to protect human rights.

Research for the 33-page report is based on that of local non-governmental organizations.

The Egyptian government does not deny the charges presented in the report.

"The report released by the US State Department on human rights conditions in Egypt is not new; it is something usual and released every year on the same pattern," Mohamed Faeq, head of the complaints office at the government-run National Council of Human Rights, said Saturday, according to reports by the state-run Middle East News Agency.

The 2008 country report charged Egypt with many of the same violations.

Police and other security forces act largely with impunity when it comes to torture and prisoner abuse, both of which are common in Egypt’s police stations and prisons, according to the report. Police are also often implicated in the murder of suspects and innocents.

Legal recourse for detainees is generally limited, particularly in the case of suspects tried in military courts. The report says that up to 5000 people remain in admininistrative detention without charge or trial. The Emergency Law allows the government to continue holding these people.

The Emergency Law is also blamed by the report for harassing and spying on journalists. Repression of free speech remains a problem in Egypt, according to the report. Bloggers and online journalists have helped to expose human rights violations, but they are also subject to intimidation by government forces.

Egyptians do not have the power to change their government, the report says, describing this as a denial of the “right of citizens to change their government.” The government regularly rigs parliamentary election results, the report quotes critics as saying, while constitutional amendments block access to the presidency. The ruling political party, the report notes, “dominated local governments, mass media, labor, and the public sector and controlled licensing of new political parties, newspapers and private organizations.”

Egypt is preparing for parliamentary elections this spring and a presidential election next year.

The report also drew attention to Egypt’s mistreatment of migrants and refugees, who are routinely imprisoned and denied legal rights or shot while trying to migrate to Israel, noting that Egypt has “no national legislative framework or system for granting asylum.” Egypt is a major transit point for African refugees.

While religious discrimination–particularly against Muslims who convert to Christianity–continues to be a major problem, the report says, it goes on to concede that Egypt has made minor progress in its treatment of Baha’i citizens.

The recent formation of Egypt’s first independent trade union, the Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees, is also credited as an improvement in freedom of assembly, although conditions for organized labor remain poor.

There has also been improvement in reducing the occurrence of female genital circumcision, the report states.

The State Department’s statement on human rights in Egypt–the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel–comes at a time when analysts say that the one-year-old administration of US President Barack Obama is promoting stability over human rights in the Middle East.

The US government has cooperated with Egypt in its extraordinary rendition program, in which terrorism suspects are sent overseas for interrogation and–in several occasions–torture.

Many of the issues addressed in the report have appeared in similar assessments from independent human rights watchdogs, such as Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights. The same issues were also addressed during Egypt’s appearance before a United Nations panel in February, when Egypt underwent its Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

Following the UPR, Egyptian government officials said that Egypt would accept most of the council’s recommendations.

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