Egypt responds with disapproval and shock after 31 countries, including US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, expressed concern on Cairo’s use of terror legislation against a broad range of critics, including rights activists and journalists.
Dozens of countries have told the UN that Egypt must stop using anti-terrorism laws to muzzle critics and even keep them in pre-trial detention indefinitely, triggering a strong response from Cairo.
In a rare oral rebuke of Egypt at the United Nations Human Rights Council, 31 countries issued a joint statement on Friday voicing alarm at restrictions on free expression and assembly in the country suffered by political opponents, right defenders and journalists.
The group of mainly European countries, but also including the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, pointed to "the constrained space for civil society and political opposition."
They expressed particular concern at "the application of terrorism legislation against peaceful critics."
"We are deeply concerned about the application of terrorism legislation against human rights activists, LGBTI persons, journalists, politicians and lawyers," said Kirsti Kauppi, Finland's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, reading the joint statement via video message.
The statement mentioned in particular the case of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a leading rights group that saw staff members detained last year and slapped with terror charges after a meeting with foreign ambassadors.
They were freed following a global outcry.
Egypt responded with "shock and disapproval" against the joint statement at the UNHRC, its Foreign Ministry said later in the day.
The government of President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, a former general who led the 2013 overthrow of democratically elected former president Mohamed Morsi, has overseen a widespread and ongoing crackdown aimed at quashing dissent.
An estimated 60,000 political prisoners are being held in Egyptian jails, according to rights groups, and the country is considered the world's third worst jailer of journalists.
Rights groups welcomed Friday's statement — which marked the first joint intervention before the rights council targeting Egypt since 2014 — but said it was long overdue.
The declaration "ends years of a lack of collective action at the UN Human Rights Council on Egypt, despite the sharply deteriorating human rights situation," Bahey Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said in a joint statement with nine other national and international rights groups.
Kevin Whelan, Amnesty International's representative to the UN in Geneva, agreed, saying the country statement should send "a clear message to the Egyptian authorities that the world will no longer turn a blind eye to their relentless campaign to crush peaceful dissent."
'Release all journalists'
Friday's statement demanded in particular that Egypt end the use of terrorism charges to hold human rights defenders and civil society activists in extended pre-trial detention.
And it highlighted in particular a practice, known as "rotation," used to circumvent legal limits on how long people can be held in pre-trial detention by "adding detainees to new cases with similar charges."
"We also ask Egypt to cease the use of the terrorism entities list to punish individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression," Kauppi said.
More broadly, the countries called on Egypt to "guarantee space for civil society ... to work without fear of intimidation, harassment, arrest, detention or any other form of reprisal."
"That includes lifting travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders, including EIPR staff," Kauppi said.
The statement also highlighted Egypt's crackdown on journalists, urging the authorities to "lift restrictions on media and digital freedom," and also to stop blocking the websites of independent media outlets.
And it called for them to release all journalists who have been arrested in the course of practising their profession.
On a more positive note, it said that a new NGO law passed in Egypt in 2019 created a legal framework that, if implemented correctly, would be more favourable for the operation of civil society organisations.
A Western diplomat who helped draft the statement said that pushing for the correct implementation of that law was a major reason for issuing the statement now.