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Activists Doubtful About Ending Human Rights Abuses in Egypt

A new government-sponsored council on human rights is set to begin work in Egypt next week. Members of the council are optimistic about their mandate. But many activists are skeptical that the council will be able to eliminate human rights abuses, such as torture, that they say have been carried out by the Egyptian government for decades.

Egypt's new National Council on Human Rights is the government's latest attempt to show the rest of the world it is committed to protecting individual freedoms.

The 25-member body is headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and includes some of Egypt's leading intellectuals, women's advocates, lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders.

But the new council is a governmental institution, and many activists say the government itself is to blame for allowing human rights abuses.

Egypt has been operating under a state of emergency since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The state of emergency laws grant security officials greater authority to suppress public protests, more leeway to conduct searches and seizures, and they allow the government to place people suspected of violating the law in detention for extended periods of time.

The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch says thousands of political prisoners are being held in Egyptian jails, where it says torture is a common practice.

According to the most recent annual report by Egypt's leading nongovernmental human rights group, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, at least 10 people died in Egyptian prisons in 2002, and were suspected of having been tortured.

Amnesty International's Middle East expert in London, Nicole Choueiry, says she hopes the council will have a long-awaited impact on the problem of torture in Egypt. "There are still many cases of torture in Egypt and torture is still very widespread," she said. "We have heard of many cases of death in custody. This practice of torture is systematic and we have been calling on the authorities to bring those responsible to justice and more importantly to put an end to this. But until now nothing of this has happened, which is why we see the setting up of the council as a positive development. Nevertheless it is still too early to judge."

Last year, the Egyptian government moved to renew the state of emergency laws for another three years, citing international instability and the need to combat terrorism.

Human rights activist and founder of the Egyptian Association Against Torture, Dr. Aida Seif el-Dawla, says those laws are the key obstacle to protecting human rights and must be lifted.

"There is no space for real addressing of human rights violations under emergency laws, under those exceptional authorities of the president, under the prevalence of torture, individuals don't make much of a difference," she said.

A member of the new council, professor of international law Salah El-Din Amer, believes the composition of the council - which includes several former heads of non-governmental organizations - reflects a commitment to adopt a new approach toward protecting human rights.

"Having inside the council membership some of the representatives of the NGO's will play a very important role to ensure that the points of views of NGOs should be addressed and considered and it will enhance the credibility of the council," said Salah El-Din Amer.

Mr. Amer says the council's first job is to create a national strategy for reaffirming respect for human rights in Egypt, and ensuring that people can actually exercise them.

The council will examine cases of alleged human rights abuses and prepare a yearly report. But it will have only an advisory role, and is not expected to have the power to actually halt abusive activities.

Council member Georgette Sobhi Keleni, who is also a member of the Egyptian Parliament, is optimistic that the group will be effective.

Ms. Keleni says she expects to learn, from the cases of alleged human rights violations that the council reviews, what kinds of legislative changes are necessary.

Meanwhile, at the Egyptian Association Against Torture, Aida Seif el-Dawla says her organization plans to make the council fully aware of the problem of torture in Egypt.

"We are going to bombard this council with as many letters as we are sending now to the president and minister of interior and prosecutor general," said Aida Seif el-Dawla. "It is another governmental body that we are going to address. If people are going to come to the council with complaints, good. Let's see what it is going to do."

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government has made some changes, and has lifted some of the emergency decrees that limited individual rights.

But human rights advocates say there is an enormous amount left to do, and they will be watching closely when the new council holds its first meeting next week.