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CORRECTED: Egypt under fire over ‘shrinking’ freedoms during UN rights review

Egypt faced strong criticism at a UN review of its rights record Wednesday, with diplomats voicing alarm over detention conditions and shrinking freedoms in the country recently rocked by mass protests.

Speaking before the United Nations in Geneva, Egyptian Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marwan insisted that Egypt was making great efforts to improve respect for human rights.

But during the so-called Universal Periodic Review — which all 193 UN countries must undergo approximately every four years — representatives of a wide range of countries voiced concern over serious abuses.

Many voiced alarm at allegations of torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances, as well as concerns over mass trials, dire conditions in detention, discrimination against women and use of the death penalty.

But shrinking space for civil society in the country seemed to be a particular concern, after some 4,000 people, including lawyers, activists, professors and journalists, were detained in a wave of arrests following rare protests against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in September.

Sisi has faced international condemnation for a crackdown on civil society groups since he took power in 2014, a year after the military toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

“We remain particularly concerned by restrictions on human rights defenders and political activists, including arrests, travel bans and asset freezes,” British Ambassador Julien Braithwaite told the assembly.

– ‘Brutal’ conditions –

Swedish Ambassador Veronika Bard agreed, urging Egypt to “stop unduly restricting space for civil society, including through asset freezes, travel bans, long periods of pre-trial detention and growing numbers of arrests.”

But Marwan flatly denied the country was restricting free speech and assembly.

In interview with AFP after the review, he maintained that “there is a right to demonstrate… (and) everyone has the right to express their opinions.”

“But they are not allowed to vandalise or commit violence or incite to hatred,” he said, speaking through a translator.

A number of diplomats also voiced concern Wednesday over conditions in detention in Egypt, amid accusations by rights groups of torture, overcrowding and medical negligence in jails.

Egypt on Monday opened up Tora prison in Cairo for a media tour following a UN report on the “brutal” conditions in which Morsi was held in prison before his death.

A group of independent rights experts said the death of the ousted Islamist president, who was held in Tora for five years, could amount to a “state-sanctioned arbitrary killing”.

Morsi’s fate was also raised by several countries, with the Turkish representative urging Egypt to “ensure that a prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation is carried out by an independent body to clarify the cause of death.”

– Duty to speak up –

Marwan meanwhile complained to AFP that the UN experts had not waited for “correct information” from Egyptian authorities before publishing their statement, and stressed that Morsi’s death was under investigation.

UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard however told AFP she had closely followed procedures, and that it was her duty to speak up since other prisoners risked succumbing to the dire prison conditions.

Italian Ambassador Gian Lorenzo Cornado meanwhile raised the case of Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Italian doctoral researcher at Britain’s Cambridge University, who disappeared in Cairo in January 2016.

His body was later found bearing extensive marks of torture. Egypt has always denied suggestions that its security services were involved in the death of Regeni, who was researching trade unions, a sensitive subject in Egypt.

Cornado urged Egypt to “strengthen efforts to prevent and combat all forms of torture and ill-treatment, ensuring that those responsible are held to account, including the perpetrators of the brutal killing of Giulio Regeni.”