Jittery Egypt renews government crackdown on dissent

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CAIRO, Sep 23 (Reuters) The doors are now closed at an Egyptian human rights law group at the forefront of court battles over accusations of torture in Egypt's jails, shut by the state on suspicion of illegally receiving funds from abroad.

The group -- the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid (AHRLA) -- is among the latest casualties of a crackdown on dissent that has targeted journalists, rights groups and political opposition movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the past month, four journalists were handed jail terms for defaming President Hosni Mubarak, an editor was sent to trial for reporting on rumours over Mubarak's health, and the Brotherhood was barred from hosting its annual Ramadan dinner.

''What I am feeling is there is a kind of nervousness. They are very nervous within the regime,'' said Diaa Rashwan, political analyst at Cairo's al-Ahram Centre.

''Now there is an effort to prepare for the post-Mubarak era.

Nobody knows what is the arrangement, what is already done, what are the chances of his son Gamal Mubarak (taking over).'' An Egyptian government spokesman was not immediately available to comment.

Observers say Egypt has increasingly sought to quash criticism -- either over politics or Cairo's human rights record -- in the run-up to an eventual transition of power from Mubarak, who at 79 has been in power for a quarter century.

The most obvious successor is Mubarak's 43-year-old son Gamal, who denies presidential ambitions but holds a senior post in the ruling party. Whoever the successor, observers say, Egypt is intent on a smooth transition preceded by political calm.

But government jitters were compounded by a rash of bad publicity over a string of police abuses in recent months in addition to rumours, denied by Mubarak's wife, that Mubarak's health was poor.

As the rumours hit, Standard&Poors said Cairo needed to persuade people that economic reforms would continue after Mubarak leaves office for its credit rating to be upgraded.

Whether the pressure will quash dissent remains to be seen.

Al-Dustour newspaper, whose editor has been repeatedly charged over writings critical of the state, still operates. Rights group AHRLA has resumed work under a new name in new offices.

WANING INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE Waning US public pressure on Egypt to improve human rights and allow more political dissent has meanwhile given the state a freer hand to act against critics in the past year, especially the Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful opposition force.

''They are trying to go back to the old game to keep putting pressure until people start censoring themselves,'' said Gasser Abdel Razek, a Cairo-based activist with Human Rights Watch.

''The groups that have been targeted have been the places that have managed to give dissent some sort of a voice.'' Some 40 Brotherhood members, including a top leader, are on trial in a military court on charges including terrorism and money laundering in proceedings rights groups including Amnesty International have dismissed as unfair. More than 120 other Brotherhood men are in jail, unrelated to that case.

The muted international response to that case and others is in stark contrast to the heavy diplomatic pressure Egypt faced over its jailing of opposition politician Ayman Nour in 2005 and of sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim in 2002.

Critics say the lack of response now has emboldened authorities to act against critics. In April, the state forcibly shut the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, which had offered legal aid to factory workers, accusing it of inciting labour unrest following a series of strikes.

A government-appointed panel of forensic experts cleared police of wrongdoing earlier this month in the case of a 13-year-old boy, arrested on suspicion of stealing packets of tea, who died shortly after being released from police custody.

An internationally respected Egyptian anti-torture group, the El-Nadim Centre, has said the boy had been beaten and subjected to electric shocks, and then received inadequate care.

In a separate case, the family of Mohamed al-Dahshouri, who relatives say died after being tortured in a police station, is refusing to bury him until a forensic report on his death is released, Al Masry Al Youm newspaper said today.

International rights groups say torture is systematic in Egyptian jails and police stations. Egypt says it opposes torture and prosecutes police who practice it.

Reuters SG DB1834

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