February 21, 2016 / 6:41 PM / a year ago

Criticism of crackdown mounts in Egypt as policeman sent to trial

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's prosecutor sent a police officer to trial for murder, state news agency MENA said on Sunday, after he confessed to shooting dead a driver, in the latest incident of alleged police brutality that has stirred public anger.

Slow handling of a string of alleged abuses by police and a move to convict an author over his sexually-explicit writings has prompted rare criticism of Egypt's authorities by prominent journalists and broadcasters.

Sergeant Mustafa Abdel Karim, who was said to have confessed to shooting the driver after an argument about a fare, was forced to flee an angry mob of locals on Thursday night after the incident. They then protested outside Cairo security directorate.

Last week, thousands of doctors held a rare protest against police who they say beat two doctors at a Cairo hospital for refusing to falsify medical records.

Earlier this month, the body of a missing Italian graduate student was found on the outskirts of Cairo showing signs of torture, including electrocution.

Activists said the injuries bore the hallmarks of Egyptian security services. The Interior Ministry denies allegations of involvement in the Italian's death.

Then, on Saturday, a court sentenced author Ahmed Naji to two years in jail over the sexual content of his novel, prompting criticism over an apparent imbalance in justice.

In an unusually strongly-worded comment in Al Maqal newspaper, prominent journalist Ibrahim Eissa compared the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to his predecessor -- the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi, whom he overthrew in 2013 following mass protests.

"Your state imprisons people for their thoughts and their novels ... what happened exactly to make our nation turn around with you to the era of searching consciences and trying minds and imprisoning writers and authors?" he wrote.

"Your state and your agencies are like the state and agencies of your predecessor, which hate intellectuals, hate thought and hate creativity.."

Anger over perceived police excesses helped fuel the 2011 revolt that ended Hosni Mubarak 30-year rule and began on a Police Day holiday.

Sisi, who has banned the Brotherhood and restricted the right to protest, told the interior minister on Friday to crack down on police abuses.

In her talk show on Saturday night, presenter Lamees al-Hadidi criticised the interior minister's handling of recent allegations, saying a perceived lack of accountability was pushing Egyptians to take the law into their own hands.

Hadidi also condemned the conviction of the author, Naji, saying the world now saw Egypt as a country that jailed intellectuals and let abuses go unpunished.

"The citizen should feel that everyone is under the law as the feeling of a lack of equality makes voices grow loud and citizens take the law into their own hands," she said.

"The interior ministry must take a tough stand with its members."

The criticism is rare not only for its tone but for its source. Hadidi has been know for their support of Sisi and the pair jointly interviewed him when he was running for president in 2014. Sisi went on to win the elections on a platform of crushing the Brotherhood and restoring stability.

Reporting by Omar Fahmy and Ali Abdelatty; Writing by Lin Noueihed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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