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Latest update : 2011-12-29

Egyptian police stormed the offices of 17 human rights groups on Thursday, including several backed by the United States. The groups have become increasingly vocal in criticising the military rulers and demanding a transition to civilian power.

REUTERS - Egyptian prosecutors and police raided offices of 17 pro-democracy and human rights groups on Thursday - including several funded by the United States - in what rights defenders described as a campaign against them by the military rulers.

The official MENA news agency said the groups had been targeted as part of an investigation into foreign funding of such organisations.

Rights groups, a driving force behind the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February, have become increasingly vocal in criticising the army's heavy-handed tactics in dealing with street unrest and demanding a quicker handover of power to civilians.

"The public prosecutor has searched 17 civil society organisations, local and foreign, as part of the foreign funding case," MENA cited the prosecutor's office as saying. "The search is based on evidence showing violation of Egyptian laws including not having permits."

The United States expressed deep concern over the raids and urged Egyptian authorities to immediately halt "harassment" of non-governmental organisation staff.

"We are very concerned because this is not appropriate in the current environment," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "We are looking for this issue to be resolved immediately."

Among groups targeted were the local offices of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI), said a security source and employees at the organisations.

"Security forces who said they were from the public prosecutor are raiding our offices as we speak. They are grabbing all the papers and laptops as well," said one person working at NDI, who gave her name as Rawda.

The security source said employees at the offices were not allowed to leave while the searches continued. It said the prosecutor had confiscated documents and machines as part of the investigation.

A Reuters television reporter who approached the IRI's offices in central Cairo found the doors sealed shut with wax and saw several police vehicles driving away from the area.

Other groups that were raided included U.S.-based Freedom House and local groups set up to defend judicial independence, individual freedoms and democracy, according to the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

"This looks like a campaign against human rights defenders," said prominent Egyptian rights activist Negad al-Borai. He said similar campaigns happened during Mubarak's three-decade rule.

"For this to happen after what we call the 'revolution', I am astonished," added Borai.

Egyptian presidential hopeful and former U.N. nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei said: "Human rights organisations are the icon of freedom.... Everyone will be watching closely any illegal attempts to distort them. The revolution will prevail."

Vocal critics

Egypt's military, which itself accepts $1.3 billion a year in U.S. aid, has vowed to investigate how pro-democracy and human rights organisations are funded and has said repeatedly it will not tolerate foreign interference in the country's affairs.

Some Egyptian rights groups have been at the vanguard of protests demanding that the army, in power since Mubarak was ousted, hand power swiftly to elected civilians.

The ruling generals have pledged to stand aside by mid-2012 but many democracy activists say the military is keen to preserve its privileges and broad business interests.

Clashes between protesters and soldiers in Cairo this month killed 17 people. Images of troops beating protesters as they lay on the ground brought thousands of Egyptians onto the streets to vent their dismay.

The harsh treatment of women protesters attracted particular attention. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticised "systematic degradation" of women during the violence, saying it "disgraces the state".

It was some of the harshest language used against Egypt's new rulers by Washington, which has voiced support for the army's plan to steer the country to democracy.

The NDI and IRI, which are loosely associated with the U.S. Democratic and Republican political parties and receive U.S. government funding, say they take a neutral political stance, fostering democracy in Egypt by training members of nascent parties in democratic processes.

"The National Democratic Institute has been training new parties ... in how to participate in elections," a leading member of a liberal party said on condition of anonymity. "This has been with the full knowledge of authorities and was not clandestine."

The NDI says on its website it organises an exchange of ideas between countries that have managed a transition to democracy and others that aspire to it. The IRI says it works with Egyptian activists to help them learn about political party development, campaign strategy and public opinion research.

Date created : 2011-12-29


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