CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt plans to launch a national political dialogue in the coming weeks, a test of whether authorities are prepared to ease a crackdown on dissent that critics say is the most severe in the country’s recent history.
General-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has steadily tightened his grip since he toppled Islamist Mohamed Mursi – the first democratically elected head of state in Egypt’s modern history – in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.
Since Sisi came to power in 2014, authorities have said that the crackdown on dissent and freedoms has been directed at terrorists and saboteurs trying to undermine the state.
Here is a look at some high-profile human rights cases in Egypt, a close U.S. ally which denies allegations of arbitrary and extrajudicial killings, torture and forced disappearances.
BLOODY CAIRO SIT-IN
Hundreds of supporters of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s oldest and most organised Islamist movement – were killed and thousands arrested after he was ousted. Senior Brotherhood leaders were sentenced to death in what human rights groups call unfair trials. Others were driven underground or abroad.
In one of the bloodiest events in Egypt’s recent history, security forces crushed the protest camps of thousands of supporters of the deposed Mursi in 2013, shooting hundreds. Rights groups say more than 800 protesters died.
Human Rights Watch said the raids were systematic, ordered by top officials and probably amounted to crimes against humanity.
Egypt’s government said the report was “characterized by negativity and bias” and relied on anonymous witnesses rather than neutral sources. Egyptian officials, who call the Brotherhood a terrorist group, have repeatedly said some protesters were armed and fired at police and soldiers.
The Brotherhood denies using violence for political ends.
In 2013 Egypt passed a law which bans protests without prior police approval. The measure brought an outcry from rights groups and raised concerns about the democratic credentials of the army-backed government installed after Mursi’s ouster.
The United States expressed concern over the new law restricting demonstrations, and said it agreed with groups that argue the law does not meet international standards.
CAPTURED ON FILM
An Egyptian police officer was charged over the shooting of a young mother at a protest in central Cairo, weeks after a photograph of her bleeding to death went viral and caused an international outcry in 2015.
Shaimaa Sabbagh, 32, was shot at a march marking the anniversary of the uprising that ousted veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The public prosecutor said she was killed by an officer who fired birdshot to try to disperse the protest.
Sisi responded to the fury over Sabbagh’s killing by referring to her as “my daughter” and “the daughter of Egypt”, and promised to bring her killers to justice. The officer was sentenced to seven years in prison on appeal.
Italian student Giulio Regeni disappeared in Cairo in January 2016. His body was found almost a week later and a post-mortem examination showed he had been tortured before his death.
Intelligence and security sources told Reuters in 2016 that police had arrested Regeni outside a Cairo metro station and then transferred him to a compound run by national security. The police have denied this and Egyptian officials have repeatedly denied any involvement in Regeni’s killing.
Italy began a trial against four senior members of Egypt’s security services in absentia over their suspected role in the case, but proceedings were suspended because of concerns the men might not know they had been charged.
In 2018, an Egyptian court put former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh on a terrorism list after his arrest for alleged contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abol Fotouh’s family say they are worried that his health is failing in prison.
A military court sentenced Egypt’s former anti-corruption chief to five years in prison in 2018 on charges of spreading false news harmful to the military, his lawyer said.
Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the sentencing of Hisham Genena, a former policeman and judge, as another example of what it called Egypt’s crackdown on all dissent under Sisi.
In 2021, prominent Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was sentenced to five years in prison after being tried on charges of spreading fake news.
Abdel Fattah, a leading activist in the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak after three decades in power, had previously been imprisoned for five years in 2014 and released in 2019.
His family are worried there could be a rapid deterioration in his health after more than 115 days on hunger strike, despite some improvements in his prison conditions.
A court in 2021 found leading human rights activist Hossam Bahgat guilty of insulting a judicial election commission in a tweet. Since 2016, Bahgat has been banned from travelling abroad and has had his personal assets frozen in connection with a separate, decade-long criminal investigation.
In 2021, Western countries called on Egypt to end the prosecution of activists, journalists and perceived political opponents under counter-terrorism laws, and to release them unconditionally.
Human rights groups estimate tens of thousands of people have been detained for political reasons since 2013. Sisi has said Egypt holds no political prisoners, that security is paramount and that the government is promoting human rights by working to provide basic needs such as jobs and housing.
The president and his backers say the detentions over recent years are necessary to stabilise Egypt.
The death of economic researcher Ayman Hadhoud requires a “thorough, transparent and credible” investigation, the U.S. State Department said, after Hadhoud died earlier this year in a Cairo psychiatric hospital where he was sent by the security services that detained him.
Amnesty International said its investigation, based on official records, witness interviews and independent experts who examined leaked photos of Hadhoud’s corpse, strongly suggested he had been tortured or otherwise ill-treated before his death.
Egypt’s public prosecution said it has found no evidence of criminal violence in Hadhoud’s death.
(Writing by Michael Georgy, editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)