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Egypt should immediately free two men active in promoting the rights of Egypt’s Shi`a minority and halt any criminal proceedings against them, Human Rights Watch said today. The two men were arrested after also criticizing the prevalence of torture in Egyptian prisons.

“The charges equate defending Shi`ism with an attack on Islam, which is a blatant affront to the basic right of freedom of religion,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “And by jailing peaceful activists who criticize its torture and detention practices, the government only gives credence to their complaint.”

On Monday, before dawn, security agents took Mohammed al-Dereini, who heads the Supreme Council for the Care of the Prophet’s Family, from his home. Officials had detained a second defendant, Ahmad Sobh, who runs the Imam Ali Center for Human Rights, on August 28, but the State Security Prosecutor did not question him until September 29. Both men were detained on the authority of administrative decrees issued under Egypt’s Emergency Law. They are being held in solitary confinement in Tora prison outside Cairo.

The State Security Prosecutor charged Sobh and al-Dereini, under Article 98(f) of the penal code, with “promoting extreme Shi`a beliefs with the intent of causing contempt of the Islamic religion.” The charge can result in imprisonment for up to 5 years. The prosecutor also charged them, under Article 102 bis, with “spreading false rumors” that could “undermine trust in security agencies by claiming that prisoners and detainees died as a result of torture.” Conviction on this charge carries up to a three-year prison sentence.

During al-Dereini’s interrogation the prosecutor focused on his Shi`a faith, according to al-Dereini’s lawyers, `Adil Ramadan from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and Ahmad Ragheb from the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. The lawyers said their objections to such questions were omitted from official transcripts of the interrogation hearing.

The charge of “spreading false rumors” is apparently linked to separate newspaper interviews in which al-Dereini and Sobh criticized what they alleged was widespread torture of Islamist detainees in Egyptian prisons. In 2006, al-Dereini published a book, Hell’s Capital (`Asimat Jahanam) that also focused on torture.

The detention and prosecution of al-Dereini and Sobh appear to be part of a broad crackdown on Egyptian rights activists, journalists and other government critics. On September 13, 2007, a court sentenced four editors of independent newspapers to prison and fined them for publishing what the government called “false news, statements or rumors likely to disturb public order." That same day, the governor of Cairo issued a decree closing the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, a group that assists torture victims. Several other journalists and bloggers have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including an Al Jazeera journalist sentenced to six months in prison for a documentary about torture in Egypt.

Shi`a critics of the government may be particularly at risk. In a 2004 report on the Egyptian Shi`a minority, the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights documented arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture and mistreatment of Shi`a Muslims in several crackdowns from 1988 to 2004.

Sobh and al-Dereini have both been detained in the past. In 2005, the authorities released Sobh after holding him for 15 years without trial for alleged membership in an armed Islamic group. Authorities detained al-Dereini for 15 months without charge in 2004-2005. The Public Prosecutor has not investigated al-Dereini’s claims that he was tortured in detention.

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