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GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights chief has warned Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi that his decree expanding his powers would put him beyond the law and open the door to human rights violations, her spokesman said on Friday.
Navi Pillay sent a letter to Mursi on Tuesday, urging him to reconsider last week's decree and warning that "approving a constitution in these circumstances could be deeply divisive," spokesman Rupert Colville told a U.N. briefing.
However, Egypt's Islamist-led assembly raced to approve the new constitution on Friday and Mursi is expected to ratify it by Saturday, which would allow a referendum on it to be held as soon as mid-December.
Mursi said the decree halting court challenges to his decisions, which has stirred a wave of protests and violence by Egyptians calling him a new dictator, was "for an exceptional stage", aimed at speeding up a democratic transition.
But Pillay, in her letter, said Egypt needed stronger guarantees to prevent it reneging on the binding principles of the main human rights treaty guaranteeing civil and political rights that Cairo ratified 30 years ago.
She called on Mursi to launch impartial investigations and "truth-seeking processes" and make sure the law worked without allowing a return of the human rights abuses seen under Mursi's autocratic predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Instead, Pillay said, Mursi - an Islamist elected by popular vote - had opened the door to rights abuses in several areas.
He was putting himself above the law by prohibiting challenges to constitutional declarations made since he took office on June 30, Pillay warned.
"In my view, this provision contravenes the fundamental notion of the rule of law by placing the president's actions outside judicial scrutiny, and not permitting any legal challenge, irrespective of its substance," she wrote.
Both that clause and another, prohibiting the courts from dissolving the Shura Council or Constituent Assembly, would break the rules on independence of the judiciary, she said.
Denying access to the courts for constitutional challenges was a further breach, she said, since Egypt is supposed to guarantee "the right to an effective remedy including in the context of elections".
She added that the decree, by envisaging the re-trial of "anyone who held a political or executive position under the former regime", broke rules against retrials of people already legally convicted or acquitted for the same offence.
Pillay was also worried about the composition of Egypt's constituent assembly, which she said should represent the full political spectrum, including women and minorities.
Colville said there had not yet been any reply to Pillay's letter but her office had held discussions with the Egyptian ambassador in Geneva. (Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)