CAIRO: Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned Sunday the “sadly reoccurring theme of oppression under which people in the Middle East and North Africa region are forced to live their lives.
“Arab governments have failed to build institutions such as a free press and political party system which protect people They are most successful in one area only: staying in power, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, said at a press conference to launch the group’s annual world report held at the Journalists’ Syndicate.
Whitson gave a “special commendation to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and “Brother Gaddafi for being among “the longest-serving leaders in the world.
The Cairo press conference is part of a series of conferences HRW are holding to cast light on specific regions covered in the 2010 annual report, released last week.
Whitson and HRW researcher Heba Morayef focused on Egypt and Libya during the conference.
Morayef explained that while there had been progress in respect for human rights in Libya in the past five years, this progress is restricted to a marginally wider scope for expression online and in the press.
“Ordinary people in the street are still too scared to talk, Morayef said, adding that in light of laws that impose the death penalty for opposition activity it remains impossible to talk about a free civil society existing in Libya.
HRW’s section on Egypt in its report deals with nine areas including torture, freedom of expression and labor rights.
“Egypt has continued to suppress political dissent in 2009. The Emergency Law remained in force, providing a basis for arbitrary detention and unfair trials, the report reads.
“The government has never confirmed the number of those detained; Egyptian human rights organizations estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 people are held without charge, it continues.
Repeal of the Emergency Law was one of five recommendations listed by Whitson.
Whitson also called for the “revamp of Egyptian security bodies.
“How many more videos do we need to see of the police beating up bus drivers and protestors? How many more testimonies of torture and rape do we need to read?
Whitson asked, adding that Egyptian security bodies need to “prove that they exist to protect the public against threats, rather than themselves posing the threat.
Morayef questioned how – given that torture remains “systematic in Egypt – the Egyptian authorities can be regarded as tackling the problem in an effective manner when only five police officers were found guilty of brutality between 2006 and 2009.
“Arbitrary detention and torture confirm Egypt’s image as a police state, Morayef said.
Morayef added that the importance of holding people to account for violations is demonstrated by the sectarian murders in Nagaa Hammadi on the night of Jan. 6, when six Copts and one Muslim were killed outside a Church in Upper Egypt.
Laws which restrict speech must be suspended and individuals detained for their beliefs released, Whitson said.
Laws which punish free speech are the “most insulting to Egyptians the regional director said. “Let Egyptians decide for themselves whether they want to read articles which insult Islam or threaten national security.
The government must also put an end to the climate of religious intolerance, Whitson said, suggesting that it is “not enough to prosecute in individual cases of sectarian violence and treat such acts as isolated acts.
Egypt must end its blockade of Gaza, Whitson said. While acknowledging that Israel is responsible for Gaza as an occupying force, she said that “Egypt shares responsibility for this illegal of collective punishment, explaining that “without Egypt’s collaboration Israel’s siege would fail.
“Israel depends on Egypt to make its siege airtight, she added.
Whitson attempted to pre-empt the “common defense put forward by the Egyptian government to criticism by HRW that, “we are foreigners meddling in Egyptian affairs.
“None of our recommendations have not been forward by Egyptian NGOs and – unlike the Egyptian government – we are an independent organization and do not take funding from the US government.