CAIRO — Egypt's human rights record came under harsh criticism during a U.N. review Wednesday, with the United States and European nations urging President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government to reverse tough measures enacted following last year's overthrow of his Islamist predecessor that have clamped down on freedoms.
The damning assessment came during the first U.N. review of the country's human rights record since the 2011 uprising that toppled long-ruling autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The uprising was led by youthful activists hoping for a more democratic future, but rights groups say today's government is even more oppressive, having enacted draconian curbs on protests and political activity and jailed thousands of Islamist and secular opponents.
"We are deeply concerned with steps taken by Egypt that have resulted in violations of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, deprived thousands of Egyptians of fair trial guarantees, and undermined civil society's role in the country," U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper told the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council.
Harper called for the release of political prisoners and urged Egypt to "investigate excessive use of force by security forces, publicly release findings, and prosecute those identified as being responsible."
Hundreds of protesters have been killed during clashes with security forces under the transitional military leadership following the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak, as well as since the first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, took office in 2012. The violence only intensified when the military overthrew Morsi following mass protests against him last year, with security forces violently breaking up demonstrations by Islamists denouncing his removal. Hundreds were killed over a few days in the summer of 2013.
The Egyptian government defended its actions, rebuffing Wednesday's criticism as based on false information or "misconceptions." The government says it is trying to contain three years of turmoil that has devastated the economy while combatting an increasingly virulent insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula that has carried out scores of deadly attacks, mainly targeting soldiers and police.
Thousands of political opponents languish in jail, mostly Islamists charged with inciting violence. An undetermined number of mass trials are underway, with at least two cases involving more than 1,200 death sentences that sparked an outcry and were later reduced. A controversial protest law was put in place, with the government arguing it was needed to help restore order.
The law was criticized as a tool to quell dissent, sending Islamist and secular opponents of the regime behind bars— some facing long sentences and hefty fines.
Toby Cadman, an international barrister, told a news conference organized by Morsi's outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, that it was "absolutely essential to have a fact-finding mission or a full blown international commission of inquiry to look into these incidents."
"We also need to ensure, not just through the U.N. system, (but) through the European Union and through Egypt's strategic and trade partners that there is sufficient pressure on this regime to implement a process of democracy and accountability," he said.
Wednesday's U.N. review came days before a Nov. 10 deadline the authorities have set for all human rights, democracy advocacy and other non-governmental groups, including those that receive foreign funding, to register under a restrictive law that dates back to Mubarak's era or risk being shut down — a step these groups fear is aimed at silencing them.
Reflecting the panic over their continued ability to function, seven Egyptian rights groups that presented a report to the U.N. review said they would not attend the meeting in Geneva for fear of being targeted by authorities on their return.
Washington's criticism echoed that of many other countries, including Britain, Sweden, Germany, Turkey, Brazil, the Netherlands and Norway, which particularly faulted Egypt's crackdown on rights groups and journalists. They also criticized the harsh sentences meted out against journalists, urging their release.
"We remain concerned about the shrinking space for civil society," said Erling Hoem, the first secretary for human rights at Norway's U.N. mission in Geneva. Although there have been guarantees in the constitution adopted after a public referendum in 2014, "many laws that are currently being enforced are contradicting constitutional provisions."
Egyptian government delegates pushed back against the criticism.
Egypt's minister for transitional justice, Ibrahim el-Heneidy, defended his country's record, saying its new constitution was "a true victory for human rights and freedoms" and insisting the government was committed to upholding the international treaties it had signed.
Hesham Badr, deputy foreign minister of Egypt, told the session that some of the comments by delegations were based on "misconceptions," lauding his government's efforts at legal and constitutional reforms and commitment to international obligations.
Lashing out at the criticism, he added: "Egypt urges that the remarks (at the review) be based on correct and accurate information, because some of them appear to be dealing with conditions in a country other than Egypt. ... Maybe some here have the wrong address."
In his closing remarks, el-Heneidy paid a nod to the international recommendations, but said Egypt's efforts to improve its human rights will take time considering the political upheaval and the threat of terrorism.
"We in Egypt know that we have tremendous challenges and the road is still long to reach what we aspire to...especially in light of the circumstances and the political developments as well as the threat of terrorism that is engulfing us," he said.
The U.N. Human Rights Council will publish a conclusion Friday containing non-binding recommendations for ways in which Egypt can improve its human rights situation. In most cases, countries that are reviewed immediately respond by noting which recommendations they accept or reject.
Mohammed Zaree, a member of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which was among those that presented a report to the U.N. council, said the government's response indicated it was "evading" responsibility.
"All the time, the government is taking cover behind the constitutional text but the implementation of that text doesn't happen," he said.
Jordans contributed from Berlin.