On the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch denounced attacks by Egyptian officials on the local human rights community.

"The timing of these attacks is outrageous," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "Today the world celebrates the prinicple of respect for human rights. But the Egyptian government is betraying these values."

The new Human Rights Watch campaign comes in the wake of accusations that state security prosecutors made last week against lawyer Hafez Abu Sa'da, secretary-general of the independent Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). Abu Sa'da was imprisoned on December 1 and released on bail on December 6, spending three days in incommunicado detention. He is accused of disseminating information abroad that harmed Egypt's national interests, among other offenses, after EOHR published a report in September 1998 describing the mass arrest and torture of residents of the village of Al-Kosheh, near Sohag in Upper Egypt. Another EOHR lawyer, Mustafa Zeidan, who carried out the fieldwork in Al-Kosheh for the report, has been summoned for questioning.

"Documentation of torture is not a crime against state security," said Megally. "The international community must send a strong message to the Egyptian government that tactics of crude intimidation against human rights activists will backfire. We will campaign vigorously to defend the human rights movement in Egypt."

Human Rights Watch is distributing internationally a briefing paper that outlines why the state's actions against EOHR represent a threat to the entire human rights community in Egypt. The paper also describes the pattern of grave human rights abuses in Egypt, which include police and security force torture, "disappearances," and taking family members hostage to force political or criminal suspects to turn themselves in to authorities.

"It appears that the Egyptian government is trying to intimidate and silence the voices that continue to expose its grave human rights record," said Megally. "Support must be mobilized internationally to ensure that Egypt's human rights activists can continue to gather the facts about abuses, and press for those responsible to be held accountable for their crimes."

Human Rights Watch says that the practice of torture by police and security officers is pervasive in Egypt. "Egyptians -- irrespective of gender, age, religious belief, and political orientation -- continue to be brutalized by agents of the state," said Megally. "And the cases of those who have died under torture are not investigated properly. No one is held accountable for these grave crimes."

Human Rights Watch adds that its briefing paper -- which includes seven recommendations to the Egyptian Government -- is being distributed at the Human Rights Defenders Summit, underway in Paris from December 8-11. Human Rights Watch will also discuss the briefing paper and its recommendations with the diplomatic community in Cairo during its December 10-19 mission to Egypt. The Human Rights Watch office in Brussels is alerting European Union governments about the gravity of the developments in Egypt.