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(Cairo) - President Obama should signal clearly to Egyptians that human rights in their country are one of his administration's central concerns when he visits Cairo on June 4, 2009, Human Rights Watch said today.

Many Egyptians worry that Obama's selection of Egypt for his speech on the Muslim world will send a message that the US will subordinate concerns about President Hosni Mubarak's poor human rights record to other priorities, such as help in promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

"President Obama needs to convey a clear message that human rights in the region, including Egypt, are a central concern of his administration," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "He should be sure that what he says in his speech and in his private meeting with President Mubarak and his choice of other people to meet will combat the growing perception here that human rights are a second-rank concern."

US officials have said that Obama's speech will not focus on Egypt but instead on broad policy issues affecting US relations with Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. The president is likely to highlight the administration's message to Israel to halt any further settlement construction in the occupied West Bank as evidence that it is serious about productive negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

"Whether he likes it or not, what President Obama does and says in Cairo will demonstrate his administration's human rights approach toward the entrenched authoritarian government of President Mubarak," Whitson said. "One way he could do this is to criticize the past US practice of ‘rendering' persons to Egypt for torture, addressing the issue in a way that also acknowledges US complicity."

President Mubarak in 2008 renewed the Emergency Law, in force since 1981, which allows authorities to detain persons arbitrarily and try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards. Security forces have violently suppressed strikes and peaceful demonstrations, arresting and sometimes torturing bloggers and other activists involved in promoting such activities.

Egyptian law also provides criminal penalties that stifle legitimate NGO activities, including "engaging in political or union activities." The government has also used lethal force against migrants and refugees seeking to cross into Israel, and forcibly returned asylum seekers and refugees to Eritrea and other countries where they could face torture.

Egypt has taken some positive steps in minority rights and women's rights, Human Rights Watch said. In 2008, the government passed legislation banning female genital mutilation, and in 2009 new legislation provided more rights to people suffering mental illness. On March 9, the Ministry of Interior issued a decree allowing Baha'is and other adherents of "non-recognized" religions to obtain essential identification documents without having to misidentify themselves as Muslims or Christians.

Human Rights Watch commended Egypt for facilitating the independent fact-finding mission of the UN Human Rights Council, headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in connection with Israel's military operations in Gaza in December and January.

"When President Mubarak meets with President Obama, he should strongly urge the US administration to support the Goldstone mission as well," Whitson said.

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