Australia urged to lead UN over human rights in Egypt

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Rights groups say Australia’s geographical isolation may help possible role in UN Human Rights Council discussion on Egypt in September

MELBOURNE, Australia – Rights groups urged Australia on Wednesday to take a leadership role when the United Nations Human Rights Council discusses the “urgent” human rights situation in Egypt in September.

The call was made in a joint letter to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights Council of Australia, Human Rights Law Centre and the International Service for Human Rights.

It accused the government of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi of “presiding over the most serious human rights crisis that Egypt has seen in decades – a brutal crackdown on almost any form of dissent or criticism.”

The letter referred to the case of Australian journalist Peter Greste, who was detained in Egypt for 13 months before being deported in February, as an example of the legal system being used “to repress journalists and government critics, in violation of international law.”

“After successfully advocating for Greste’s release, Australia is well placed to take the lead in pressing for a Human Rights Council statement on Egypt’s human rights crisis,” Elaine Pearson, Human Rights Watch’s Australia director, underlined in the letter.

The groups also said that “Australia’s geographical isolation from Egypt may be a helpful factor” where other countries have been unwilling to lead on the issue due to concerns about regional security and stability in the Middle East.

In 2013, Australia sought membership in the UN council for the first time, announcing its candidacy for the 2018-2020 term.

“Action at the Human Rights Council is a crucial step to demonstrate to the Egyptian government that the world is watching and to increase political pressure for reform,” Pearson said. “If Australia aspires to global human rights leadership, then many will expect Australia to be more active on urgent country situations, and Egypt would be an excellent place to start.”

Greste was among three Al-Jazeera journalists arrested in a Cairo hotel in Dec. 2013, only days after Egyptian authorities branded the Muslim Brotherhood – the group from which ousted President Mohamed Morsi hails – a “terrorist” group.

The Egyptian government accuses Al-Jazeera of bias in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood – an allegation the channel denies – amid tension with Doha over Qatar’s criticism of Morsi’s 2013 ouster and imprisonment by the army.

The three journalists were all slapped with jail terms ranging from seven to 10 years after being convicted of “broadcasting false news” and “threatening Egypt’s national security.”

Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were released on bail and are to be retried, while Greste was deported.

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