Egypt fiercely rejects criticism of human rights record
In a rare oral rebuke of Egypt at the council, 31 countries issued a joint statement on Friday voicing alarm at restrictions on free expression and assembly suffered by political opponents, rights defenders and journalists in the North African country.
They expressed particular concern at "the application of terrorism legislation against peaceful critics".
"We are deeply concerned about the application of terrorism legislation against human rights activists, LGBTI persons, journalists, politicians and lawyers," said Kirsti Kauppi, Finland's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, reading the joint statement.
However, Egypt’s senate on Saturday claimed "no lawyer, journalist or human rights lawyer or human rights activist is in custody unless he has committed a crime justifying the actions taken against him - whether through a fair trial or fair investigations conducted by a judiciary fully independent from the executive branch".
"The Egyptian state has only used anti-terrorism laws against those who have already committed terrorist crimes," it said in a statement, criticising the joint declaration for treating the issues raised "superficially".
Egypt's parliament, meanwhile, urged the 31 countries "not to install themselves as guardians of Egypt" and to refrain from "politicising human rights issues for political or electoral purposes".
Using arguments often made by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, lawmakers said the council "should have taken an objective view of Egypt's efforts to maintain security and stability not only internally but also regionally".
Sisi rose to power following the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and has overseen a wide-ranging, ongoing crackdown aimed at quashing dissent.
Human rights groups estimate around 60,000 political prisoners are being held in Egyptian jails.
Rights organisations welcomed Friday's statement - the first joint intervention before the rights council targeting Egypt since 2014 - but said it was long overdue.
The declaration "ends years of a lack of collective action at the UN Human Rights Council on Egypt, despite the sharply deteriorating human rights situation," Bahey Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said in a joint statement with nine other national and international rights groups.
Kevin Whelan, Amnesty International's representative to the UN in Geneva, said the statement should send "a clear message to the Egyptian authorities that the world will no longer turn a blind eye to their relentless campaign to crush peaceful dissent".
Egypt's foreign ministry on Friday said the joint statement contained "inaccurate information”.
'Release all journalists'
Friday's statement demanded in particular that Egypt end the use of terrorism charges to hold human rights defenders and civil society activists in extended pre-trial detention.
And it highlighted in particular a practice, known as "rotation", used to circumvent legal limits on how long people can be held in pre-trial detention by "adding detainees to new cases with similar charges."
"We also ask Egypt to cease the use of the terrorism entities list to punish individuals for exercising their right to freedom of expression," Kauppi said.
More broadly, the countries called on Egypt to "guarantee space for civil society... to work without fear of intimidation, harassment, arrest, detention or any other form of reprisal."
"That includes lifting travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders, including EIPR staff" Kauppi said.
The statement also highlighted Egypt's crackdown on journalists, urging the authorities to "lift restrictions on media and digital freedom," and also to stop blocking the websites of independent media outlets.
And it called for them to release all journalists who have been arrested in the course of practising their profession.
On a more positive note, it said that a new NGO law passed in Egypt in 2019 created a legal framework that, if implemented correctly, would be more favourable for the operation of civil society organisations.
A Western diplomat who helped draft the statement said that pushing for the correct implementation of that law was a major reason for issuing the statement now.
Agencies contributed to this report.