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(Cairo) - ­The Egyptian government's unprecedented blackout of the nation's internet and most cell phone networks poses a major threat to basic human rights, and should be reversed immediately, Human Rights Watch said today.

The shutdown of the web is an apparent response to massive countrywide demonstrations that began as protests against police torture and quickly escalated into calls for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's three decades of rule.

Human Rights Watch staff in Egypt confirm internet service providers, internet cafes, and most cell phone networks are not functioning.

"Egypt's information blackout is an extreme step designed to disrupt planned marches, to block images of police brutality, and to silence dissent once and for all," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But the shuttering of the internet and most telecommunications by the Egyptian government also means that the government can take unmonitored action against its citizens, which poses a dire threat to human rights."

Mubarak has ruled Egypt since 1981 under emergency laws that give his security forces the power to arbitrarily arrest and detain thousands without charge for unlimited periods of time, and to ban demonstrations. A culture of impunity has enabled systematic torture. Against this backdrop, determined young internet activists have increasingly taken to the internet and used it to organize street protests and share information about cases.

"Egypt is flagrantly violating its treaty obligation to respect freedom of expression and information by this radical action," said Stork. "The protests, while widespread, are largely peaceful and certainly can't justify a nationwide blackout on internet and cellular service."

Freedom of expression and information may be limited to the extent "necessary in a democratic society" to protect national security and public order under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a basic human rights treaty to which Egypt and most nations are party. However, spontaneous protests, even to advocate changing the government, are not considered a threat to the territorial integrity of a country, nor would the need to control crowds justify the comprehensive cut-off of basic services. Egypt has lived under repressive and widely criticized "state of emergency" laws since 1967 that the government uses to justify wide curtailment of civil liberties such as the right to protest.

Human Rights Watch said that the internet and mobile communications are essential tools for rights of expression, to information, and of assembly and association.

The United States, European Union, and influential regional governments should take immediate steps to press Egypt to end the nationwide telecommunications blackout.

Companies and internet service providers in and outside of Egypt should act responsibly to uphold freedom of expression and privacy by pressing Egypt to stop censoring their products and services.

The Egyptian government pulled the plug on the web during a week of escalating public demonstrations, which were set off by a Facebook group in the name of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old man brutally beaten to death on an Alexandria street by police officers in June 2010. Said's story has come to symbolize the Egyptian government's endemic use of the emergency, torture, and blatant disregard for basic human rights.

"A state-directed national attack on information is deeply chilling and threatens to encourage other governments in the region to take similar action," said Stork. "The international community must respond swiftly to put an end to Egypt's information blackout and human rights abuses."

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