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Obama should condemn free expression violations during visit

The Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) released its 2008 annual report on the worsening situation of free expression in Egypt ahead of U.S. President Barrack Obama's visit to the country.

The report documents an alarming rise in authorities' use of Emergency Law against journalists and bloggers, ill-treatment by police, and a growing number of physical assaults and abductions. Underscoring these human rights violations, ANHRI noted, is government officials' indifference to, and sometimes complicity in, the attacks.

Hisba lawsuits, which have grown in prominence in recent years, continued to be used as a mechanism to harass and intimidate journalists in 2008. Through Hisba law, lawyers and the religious conservative establishment have the authority to launch lawsuits against individuals they deem to have either violated Islamic religious principles or undermined the interests of the state.

"A growing number of lawyers and religious men seek to gain fame or flatter the Egyptian government and the ruling National Democratic Party, through filing Hisba cases against creative writers and journalists," ANHRI writes.

The report also condemns government persecution of satellite TV news channels, and the numerous confiscations of books and magazines, which are increasingly carried out by extralegal, vigilante censor bodies.

A hard copy of the report, available in Arabic and English was distributed at a press conference in Cairo last week.

The report comes at a time when blogger Dia Eddin Gad faces a renewed round of threatening tactics from the same police who abducted him earlier this year and detained him for close to two months under the allowance of emergency law. ANHRI reports police have been phoning the young blogger on a routine basis, demanding that he meet with them "for his own good."

In a rare good news development in free expression in Egypt, ANHRI reports the country's Court of Appeal repealed a two-year jail sentence against Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democracy activist and university professor currently living in the US. Last week, the court acquitted Ibrahim due to "incompetence" on the part of the plaintiff. Chief of Social Relations, Thoraya Labna, had brought the Hisba case against Ibrahim on the claim that he was damaging the country's reputation abroad.

Meanwhile, ahead of U.S. President Barrack Obama's speech in Cairo on 4 June, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) urged Obama to uphold his "administration's stated intention to seriously deal with the problems that have inflamed resentment" in the Arab and Muslim world. CIHRS stressed the importance of "giving respect and support for human rights and democratic freedoms in this area of the world."

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) executive director Joel Simon wrote on open letter calling on Obama to press Egyptian authorities to release journalists unjustly jailed and to condemn this repressive practice throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Simon argued the U.S.'s own practice of detaining journalists without trial for extended time periods in prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay may have "contributed to an overall increase in imprisoned journalists by authoritarian regimes that have used this policy as a pretext for sidelining critical journalists in their own countries."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is also pressing for Obama to take a hard-line stance against human rights violations during his time in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. While in Cairo, HRW is asking Obama to express his concern about the use of emergency law and the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations, among other issues.

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