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The Egyptian government’s campaign to suppress peaceful dissent escalated today with the arrests of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood and leftist demonstrators in Cairo and Alexandria, Human Rights Watch said today. As in previous incidents over the past several weeks security forces also beat, kicked and clubbed demonstrators.

“This is another grim day for Egypt’s supposed commitment to political reform,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “People are trying to gather peacefully to support critics of the government, which responds by putting them behind bars or beating them into silence.”

In a related development, a Supreme Judicial Council disciplinary tribunal today exonerated Judge Mahmud Mekki on charges that he had “disparaged the Supreme Judicial Council” and “talked to the press about political affairs.” But on the same grounds, it issued a rebuke and denied a promotion to Judge Hisham al-Bastawisi, who is in a Cairo hospital after suffering a heart attack early Wednesday morning.

Today’s demonstration, like others in recent weeks, was in support of the two judges, whose calls for judicial independence and clean elections have angered the government and the ruling National Democratic Party.

In a separate development, the Court of Cassation today upheld the December 2005 conviction of former presidential candidate, Ayman Nur, an outspoken dissident. In what appear to have been politically motivated charges, the government claimed that Nur had forged signatures on the application to register his political party. Nur, a former member of parliament, was President Hosni Mubarak’s leading challenger in Egypt’s first contested presidential election last September. Human Rights Watch monitored his trial, which was characterized by serious irregularities and did not meet the standards for a free and fair judicial proceeding.

Egyptian authorities say that this morning they arrested 240 Muslim Brothers and 14 activists with the Kifaya (“Enough”) opposition umbrella group. The Muslim Brotherhood put the number arrested in Cairo at around 400, and said that scores of additional arrests also took place in Alexandria. Kifaya coordinator George Ishak told reporters that demonstrators from his group were also beaten and arrested in Abbasiyya, another Cairo neighborhood.

Leading Brotherhood members were among those detained today, including member of parliament Muhsin Radi, Muhammad Mursi, a member of the group’s executive bureau, and `Issam al-`Irian, a prominent spokesman for the group and leading member of the Doctors’ Syndicate.

“The Egyptian government should immediately release all those arrested today unless it can show that a particular individual was engaged in violence,” Stork said. “Coming together for peaceful protests is not a crime.”

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