Rights group slams Egypt's record in 2016

Cairo - Human Rights Watch said in a report issued Thursday that Egypt has banned public criticism and peaceful opposition, and that security forces routinely torture detainees and forcibly disappeared hundreds last year.

In its "World Report 2017," the New York-based advocacy group said President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi's government has also taken "unprecedented" steps to criminalise human rights work and cripple independent civil society groups.

El-Sisi led the military's 2013 ouster of the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, whose year in office proved divisive.

He has since overseen a crackdown that jailed thousands, mostly Morsi supporters but also some prominent secular activists.

El-Sisi has repeatedly said that Egypt should not be judged by Western standards and that the right to education, housing and health care is just as important as freedom of expression.

Since being elected in 2014, he has focused on reviving Egypt's ailing economy, upgrading its rickety infrastructure and battling Islamic State militants in the Sinai.

Authorities have steadily eroded many of the freedoms won by the 2011 popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

A new constitution ratified in a 2014 referendum is widely seen as the most liberal and progressive in the country's history, but clauses guaranteeing freedoms, privacy and human rights have largely been ignored.

"President el-Sisi's government is consolidating and escalating repression," said Joe Stork of HRW. "

Absent strong responses from the international community, authorities will continue to squeeze the space for exercising basic freedoms into nothing."

The HRW report came one day after an Egyptian court upheld an earlier ruling to freeze the assets of three prominent rights activists, the latest chapter in a widening government crackdown against civil society groups.

The freezing of their assets and those of five other rights campaigners in September is part of a wider case against at least 12 groups that dates back to 2011.

Egypt's parliament, a 596-seat chamber packed with government supporters, approved a law in November that gives security agencies extensive power over the financing and activities of non-governmental organizations.

"The international community should recognize that human rights in Egypt have deteriorated far beyond the repression that existed before the country's 2011 uprising," Stork said.

He called for a "concerted, coordinated effort to help preserve what is left of the country's civil society before it is driven completely underground."

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