CAIRO (Reuters) - A smiling Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared on state television last month to pardon more than 330 prisoners, saying it was an act of clemency ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This week, he pardoned another 712.
Many were young Egyptians jailed for anti-government protests.
But with less fanfare, at least six prominent Sisi critics have been detained in recent weeks, in what opposition activists say is an intensifying effort to crush all dissent less than three months after his landslide election victory.
“I am being arrested,” Wael Abbas, one of the highest-profile detainees, wrote on Facebook around dawn on May 23.
The journalist, who won an international award in 2007 for reporting on police brutality, was charged with spreading fake news and involvement with an illegal organisation, a phrase often used by the Egyptian authorities as a reference to Islamist groups. His lawyer, Gamal Eid, said Abbas denied the charges.
Abbas joined other high-profile figures in detention, all arrested in the space of three weeks. The group includes Hazem Abdelazim, a well-known Sisi supporter turned critic, as well as several leading figures from Egypt’s 2011 uprising, when mass protests forced then-president Hosni Mubarak from office. The activists had since turned their sights on Sisi, who they see as a return to an era of strong military control.
Egypt’s interior ministry and president’s office did not respond to phone calls or written questions about the arrests.
Egypt’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “no citizen in Egypt is arrested ... for directing criticism at the Egyptian government, but for committing crimes punishable by law.”
Sisi easily won re-election in March with 97 percent of the vote, but turnout was just 41 percent. All serious opponents had withdrawn beforehand from the race, citing intimidation.
Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said he knew of about 30 journalists or activists who had been arrested since the election. Reuters was not able to verify that figure.
The recent arrests have raised alarm, including in the United States and United Nations, partly because those detained are prominent figures whose open criticism of the authorities had not triggered such strong reprisals until now.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence praised last month’s pardons, but also expressed concern to Sisi on May 24 over the new arrests. On Tuesday, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani urged Egypt to “respect ... obligations under international human rights law.”
International and local rights groups have said the arrests were made without warrants and detainees were denied access to lawyers.
Since coming to power in 2014, Sisi has presided over a sweeping crackdown on Islamist opponents and liberal activists, which rights groups say is the worst period of political repression in modern Egyptian history.
The former military chief toppled elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule. Thousands of supporters of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood were arrested and Egypt passed a law requiring interior ministry permission for any public gathering of more than 10 people.
Sisi’s supporters say such measures are needed to keep Egypt stable as it recovers from political chaos and tackles grave economic challenges. It also faces an Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and has imposed a nationwide state of emergency.
Sisi, who denies there are political prisoners in Egypt, has issued pardons several times a year, including on major holidays, often releasing students and young protesters.
Some lawyers, rights researchers and diplomats said they are at a loss to explain the latest arrests. Those detained had mainly avoided incarceration for years despite their online activism.
“Before the election (there was) the logical explanation that it was to scare (opposition) supporters,” Mohamed Lotfy, director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told Reuters.
“The latest (arrests) have just targeted those writing on the internet,” he said, adding that Sisi’s critics were increasingly engaging in self-censorship for fear of arrest.
Lotfy’s wife, Amal Fathy, was detained last month for insulting the state after posting a expletive-filled video criticising the government for failing to protect women against sexual harassment.
Another detainee, Hazem Abdelazim, had complained on Twitter about a deepening crackdown days before his arrest on May 27.
“People are being arrested every day ... oppression is increasing,” he wrote. In his Twitter postings, he criticised the release of more than 300 prisoners by Sisi as not including any political opponents or prominent critics. A full list of those pardoned was not made available by the authorities.
Abdelazim served as a government official under Mubarak and campaigned for Sisi’s first term in 2014, but has since said that this was his “biggest sin”.
Like Abbas, the journalist, Abdelazim faces charges of spreading fake news and involvement with an illegal organisation, charges which his lawyer said he denies.
Satirist Shady Abu Zeid and lawyer Haitham Mohamedeen were among other prominent Egyptians arrested in May. Abu Zeid’s lawyer said he faced the same charges as Abbas and Abdelazim, charges which he denies. Mohamedeen’s lawyer was not immediately available for comment.
Shady Ghazaly Harb, a leading opposition figure in 2011 when mass protests forced Mubarak from office, was also detained last month. He had taken to Twitter to criticize the detention of demonstrators taking part in a rare public protest against an increase in fares on the Cairo metro.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Giles Elgood and Nick Tattersall