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Amnesty warns of Egypt's 'parallel justice system'

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Paris (AFP)

Amnesty International warned on Wednesday that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government had built a "parallel justice system" to crack down on critics and dissent.

The London-based rights watchdog said the key tools of repression were the Supreme State Security Prosecution service, known as the SSSP, as well as counter-terrorism courts and special police forces.

"In Sisi's Egypt, all critics of the government are seen as potential terrorists," Amnesty's France director Katia Roux said at the launch of the 60-page report in Paris.

"The situation is getting worse. Repression is hardening."

In its report entitled "Permanent State of Exception", Amnesty said it had observed a sharp rise in cases prosecuted by the SSSP -- from 529 in 2013 to 1,739 cases last year.

The prosecution -- which deals with activities deemed threats to state security -- regularly probes political dissidents and Islamist figures including from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.

Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East research and advocacy head, warned that the SSSP had "become a central tool of repression whose primary goal appears to be arbitrarily detaining and intimidating critics, all in the name of counter-terrorism".

The SSSP, along with the Egyptian National Security Agency (NSA), a special police force, and the counter-terrorism courts "have emerged as a parallel justice system for detaining, interrogating and trying peaceful dissidents," he said.

- 'In the fridge' -

The report noted that many detainees are forced to languish in prison for lengthy stretches of "pre-trial detention", without any hope of a legal reprieve or of a case being opened.

"Many are detained for months and years without evidence, based on secret police investigations and without recourse to an effective remedy," it said.

Former inmates of Egyptian prisons and their relatives spoke about their experiences to AFP in Paris.

"There's now an expression in Egypt for preventive detention," said Celine Lebrun, whose activist Egyptian husband Ramy Shaath has been held in Cairo since July.

"They say 'putting someone in the fridge'. The state can put people in the fridge for months on end or for years."

She said Shaath, accused of "assisting a terrorist group", had finally appeared in court on Monday without his lawyers being given any advance notice.

Ayman Salah, another activist who has sought asylum in France, said he had been detained nine times since 2000 on similar charges.

"The conditions of detention in Egypt... Try to reach into the depths of your imagination, you still won't have an idea of what it's like," he said.

He said detainees were gripped by a fear of being "wiped off" the face of the earth. "If you are the victim of a forced disappearance, it's as if you don't exist."

- State of emergency -

Rights groups regularly accuse Egyptian authorities of curtailing freedoms and muzzling any form of dissent including from Islamist and secular opposition.

Under Sisi, protests have effectively been outlawed, a renewable state of emergency remains in force, and authorities last year also adopted a law to clamp down on social media.

Late Tuesday, lawyers and activists reported on Facebook the arrest of three journalists from a cafe in Giza, in the latest episode of an ongoing crackdown on the media.

Authorities could not be immediately reached for comment.

Earlier this week, plainclothes police raided, detained then released three editors at the local online news outlet Mada Masr after arresting another editor the day before.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Egypt to respect press freedom.

"As part of our long-standing strategic relationship with Egypt, we continue to raise the fundamental importance of respect for human rights, universal freedoms and the need for a robust civil society," he said.

"We call on the Egyptian government to respect freedom of the press and release journalists detained during a raid last weekend."

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