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A still photo of a video circulated on social media on September 20 showing masses of anti-government protesters in the city of Damietta, North of Cairo, tearing down a big Sisi banner.  © Twitter
(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should protect the right to peaceful protest in upholding Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should immediately release all those arrested for solely exercising their rights.

Media reports and videos posted on social media on the evening of September 20, 2019 show thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in several cities across the country. Security forces, including the military and the police, have apparently chased and rounded up protesters and surrounded Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, according to media reports.

“President al-Sisi’s security agencies have time and again used brutal force to crush peaceful protests,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should recognize that the world is watching and take all necessary steps to avoid a repetition of past atrocities.”

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should direct the state security forces to abide by international standards for law enforcement during demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said.

The protests followed calls for President al-Sisi to step down by Mohamed Ali, a former army contractor, who over the past two weeks has published allegations of corruption within the army and of al-Sisi himself.

In recent months, al-Sisi has warned against protests, and Egyptian security forces have used unnecessary and excessive lethal force in recent years against peaceful protesters with near-total impunity. In the largest mass killing of protesters in Egypt’s modern history, security forces killed at least 817 protesters within a few hours on August 14, 2013, as security forces violently dispersed a sit-in at Rab’a Square in Cairo. Authorities also have failed to investigate these mass killings, which most likely amounted to crimes against humanity.

Authorities have imprisoned and prosecuted thousands of protesters since President al-Sisi rose to power in late 2013. The nationwide crackdown intensified after he became president in June 2014.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party, upholds the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

The Egyptian government should publicly order the security forces to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said. The Basic Principles state that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Earlier on September 20, al-Sisi flew to New York City to participate in the United Nations General Assembly. Egypt’s international partners, as well as the UN secretary-general, should call on the Egyptian government to respect people’s rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

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