Egypt's Democracy At Risk, Amnesty International Warns

Egypt's precarious transition to democracy is threatened by the continued use of military trials against civilians, three-decades-old emergency laws, press restrictions and other repressive practices leftover from the old regime. That's the conclusion of the head of the rights group Amnesty International as he wrapped up a multi-day visit to Egypt Sunday. From Cairo, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

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Turning now to Egypt. That country's precarious transition to democracy is being threatened by the continued use of military trials against civilians, a 30-year-old emergency law; press restrictions, and other repressive practices leftover from the old regime. That is the conclusion of the head of the civil rights group Amnesty International as he wrapped up a multi day visit to Egypt today.

From Cairo, NPRs Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Since autocrat Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February, by a combination of mass street protests and military pressure, a body called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has ruled Egypt. The military council has pledged to help guide the country to new elections, starting with a parliamentary vote scheduled for September and a presidential vote sometime after that.

But Amnesty Internationals head, Salil Shetty, says free and fair elections are threatened by laws and practices leftover from the Mubarak regime; including emergency laws enacted in the early 1980s, which gives security forces wide power to arrest and detain civilians. He urged the army to move quicker to abolish those laws.

Mr. SALIL SHETTY (Secretary-General, Amnesty International): We are very concerned that if this is not done before the elections, it could - these laws - could be abused. And at a point when people are anxious, theres a lot of anxiety to some extent. Some paranoia, you know. They should just get rid of it, you know. We could move forward on a much better footing.

WESTERVELT: Amnesty's secretary-general praised the army for releasing some political detainees and dissolving the once-dreaded State Security Investigation Services. But Shetty worries too much of Egypts machinery of authoritarianism is still firmly in place. He urged Egypts military council to stop trying civilians in army courts. Since Mubaraks ouster more than 7,000 civilians have been hauled before military courts.

Shetty says Egypts civil judiciary certainly needs strengthening and reform. But the solution he says is not for the army to run a parallel legal system, especially one that is not transparent, independent, has no right of appeal and fails to meet basic international fair trial standards.

Mr. SHETTY: This is just again an old Mubarak habit, we have to put an end to it. And the speed at which theyre moving is insane, in a space of less than two days they cleared 170 cases. So I can see that they're anxious to provide justice. But nobody in Egypt really believes that - particularly the victims who weve been meeting - they do not feel that they are being given justice through the military process.

WESTERVELT: Under the old regime, Amnesty regularly documented systemic abuse of detainees by the police and security services, including the use of electric shocks, sleep deprivation and hanging suspects by their limbs for hours. The security services brutality, injustice and lack of accountability were key complaints that helped fuel the January 25th uprising against Mubarak.

Shetty says its key the government investigate not just past misdeeds but allegations of abuse in the post-Mubarak period.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Cairo.

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