Rights group: Egypt arrested 10 reporters since virus hit

FILE – In this June 19, 2019 file photo, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi speaks during a press conference in Bucharest, Romania. Amnesty International says that journalism in Egypt has effectively become a crime over the past four years, as authorities clamp down on media outlets and muzzle dissent. The London-based rights group said in a report Sunday, May 3, 2020 that as the number of coronavirus infections in Egypt continues to rise, the government is strengthening information controls, instead of upholding transparency during the health crisis. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

CAIRO (AP) — The Egyptian government has arrested at least 10 journalists since the coronavirus was detected in the country, a local human rights group said, accusing authorities of seizing on the pandemic to accelerate a long-running campaign against dissent.

The wave of detentions comes even as authorities across the world release inmates in a scramble to curb the spread of the virus in prisons, where social distancing and other preventative measures prove impossible, said the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.

The government has not released political detainees to prevent an outbreak, and instead put an end to family visits in prisons as a precautionary step.

“The health conditions in Egyptian prisons have deteriorated, and inmates are not receiving necessary health care,” the network said, pointing to the case of Shady Habash, a young Egyptian filmmaker detained for two years without trial who died suddenly this month.

Habash’s death prompted accusations of medical negligence and raised fears about unhealthy conditions in prisons. Egypt’s public prosecution released a postmortem report saying he mistakenly poisoned himself by drinking hand sanitizer in his cell.

The rights group outlined cases of 10 journalists recently caught up in President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s sweeping crackdown on the press.

Earlier this week, security forces detained Lina Attalah, the editor of Egypt’s most prominent investigative media outlet when she was conducting an interview. She was fined and released later that night.

Other reporters continue to languish behind bars without trial.

Journalist and photographer Sameh Hanin, the group said, was also arrested this week and accused of “helping a terrorist group,” a frequent charge leveled at all sorts of critics of el-Sissi’s government.

It’s a reference to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that el-Sissi has branded as the state’s enemy, even though Hanin was known to be a secular Christian. Hanin’s lawyer confirmed to The Associated Press that prosecutors have ordered his 15-day detention pending investigation into the terrorism charge.

In addition to this month’s arrests of Haisam Hasan Mahgoub, a reporter at a major local paper, and independent artistic producer Moataz Abdul Wahab, the group detailed the detentions of multiple media figures, including a major news company owner, TV presenter, editor-in-chief and documentary producer. In most cases, security forces burst into their homes, transferred them to police stations and accused them of spreading “fake news” or joining and funding a “terrorist group.”

On Thursday, the organization separately said that security forces have disappeared one of its former researchers, Shayma Samy, a journalist who had recently written for a news outlet run by a socialist opposition party. She has yet to appear before prosecutors.

There was no immediate comment from Egypt’s interior ministry.

Since rising to power in 2013, President el-Sissi has sought to stifle all dissent by incarcerating thousands, including many lawyers, rights activists and academics. The country is ranked among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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