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Egyptian Rights Group Alleges Abuse of Shi'ites - 2004-08-04


An Egyptian human rights group is calling for an end to what it claims is a pattern of abuse by state security forces against Egypt's tiny Shi'ite Muslim population. Government officials say the allegations of abuse are not true.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says Shi'ite Muslims in Egypt are being subjected to systematic abuse that includes arbitrary arrests and interrogation, torture and prolonged jail time without charges ever being filed.

The executive director of the group, Hossam Bahgat, says state security forces have traditionally violated the rights of religious minorities in Egypt.

"State security officers were given a free hand to do whatever they see fit, not only with the Shi'ites. This happened to the Scientologists. This happened to the Bahiis. It happened to different people who actually deviate from what the state sees as the official religion, or the heavenly religion," says Mr. Bahgat. "And, it is this culture of impunity that actually allowed state security officers to repeat this pattern of violations every couple of years. And, we are expecting them to be repeated if these violations are not remedied."

Mr. Bahgat says security forces are allowed to invoke Egypt's decades old emergency law that enables security forces to arrest anyone considered to be suspicious. He says since 1988 at least 124 Shi'ite Muslims, who represent less than one percent of the Egyptian population, have been arrested, interrogated about their religious beliefs and were then offered freedom if they renounced those beliefs. Some of the detainees, he says, were held for months without ever having been formally charged.

A senior official with Egypt's interior ministry denied such abuses have taken place, noting that Egypt's constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion. However, the human rights group says the government has failed to investigate any of the 124 cases it cited in a study that was funded by the Swiss government.

Swiss embassy official, Peter Nelson, says funding such studies is part of a larger effort to effect democratic change. "One of the things we try to do through this sort of funding is to strengthen the rule of law. And, in order to strengthen the rule of law, one of the things you have to do is raise awareness and the deficiencies of the legal system and of the way judgments of the legal system are being implemented," he says. "It's the legal system, as such, that functions relatively well. It's what the government, the executive power does with the decisions of the judicial. And, that's a point that needs further efforts in this country."

For instance, Mr. Nelson says despite two Egyptian judicial decisions ordering the release of the last known remaining Shi'ite Muslim being held, he remains in custody with no charges ever having been filed.

An interior ministry official said that detainee was being investigated as possible risk to state security.