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NGOs call for human rights reform during UN review

During a United Nations Human Rights Council review of Egypt's rights record on 17 February, Egyptian NGOs, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), called on the government to seriously address human rights violations. Two days later, Egypt accepted some rights reforms and rejected others.

At the review, the Egyptian government justified or denied human rights abuses, while other Arab states praised the country instead of offering concrete human rights recommendations, reports CIHRS. To counter this response, a coalition of 15 Egyptian rights institutions led by CIHRS put forth a detailed list of recommendations for the UN Universal Periodic Review of Egypt.

The rights groups are urging the government to end the state of emergency and to stop sending civilians to military tribunals. CIHRS noted that in 2008, protesters were convicted by a court based on information obtained using torture, while authorities failed to identify those responsible for three deaths due to excessive force used by security forces at the protest.

As well, counterterrorism laws must be reassessed to match international rights norms as they are currently used to "harass and criminalise" peaceful expression and opposition.

The rights groups continue to call on the government to revise NGO laws so they comply with international standards on the right to organise. In May 2009, EOHR received a notice from the Ministry of Social Solidarity "warning of its impending dissolution after the organisation applied for approval of a foreign grant from the ministry."

Other recommendations include ending control of the executive authority and the ruling party over state-owned media outlets and to abolish "freedom-depriving punishments for press and publication crimes," to guarantee media freedom and strengthen pluralism.

On 19 February, Egypt refused to end the state of emergency and to release bloggers and human rights defenders imprisoned under emergency laws. The government also rejected recommendations to permit NGOs and human rights defenders to operate without impediments.

However, in a small victory, Egypt did agree to "repeal laws that allow for imprisonment of journalists for exercising their right to freedom of expression, to continue to promote political participation of women including in the judiciary, to not use emergency laws against journalists and bloggers." But the state must back up its promises with concrete plans and definite deadlines, says CIHRS.

Meanwhile, on 18 February, leading Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas was acquitted on appeal of a six-month prison sentence, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF). He was sentenced last November on trumped-up charges intended to silence his criticism of the state. According to ANHRI, Abbas was framed by his neighbour who asked for help with his Internet cable. Bloggers are routinely harassed by authorities, and have little protection.

In another incident, community activist Sabah Khalil Eid was detained on 28 January for talking about human trafficking on a local television show, reports ANHRI. She criticised the trend of "marrying off female minors to rich old men from the Gulf," and mentioned the case of a 13-year-old child whose parents forced her into marriage. Eid was released after four days as a result of an intervention from ANHRI.

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