Rice softly broaches human rights concern in Egypt

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CAIRO, Oct 16 (Reuters) U S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gently chided Egypt over its human rights record today ''in the spirit of friendship and respect'', but Egypt said it had no control over recent court verdicts.

Rice, on a West Asia tour to gather support for a peace conference expected by the end of the year, said she had raised the case of jailed opposition leader Ayman Nour, and concerns over a spate of recent court rulings against journalists.

''We always raise these issues in the spirit of friendship and respect. Also, we did talk about internal affairs here. A lot is happening in Egypt,'' Rice told a news conference after talks with President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt, whose government is a key ally of Washington in the Middle East, has sentenced 10 journalists to jail in the past five weeks for publishing offences. The police have continued to detain members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt's recent actions prompted the White House last month to express deep concern, and Washington said the moves appeared to contradict Egypt's commitment to expand democratic rights.

Egypt rejected the criticism as meddling.

Rice, whose public criticism today was milder than the remarks made by the White House in September, was rebuked by Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who interrupted her to insist that recent developments in Egypt were ''positive''.

''Well, yes, many positive things are happening,'' Rice replied.

''Economically, a lot of things are happening. But we do have concerns about political events here.'' Aboul Gheit retorted that the government could not interfere in legal matters.

''When we touch on issues that we consider sensitive or internal, I listen,'' he said.

''However, my response is always: It is due process, it is the Egyptian legal process, and this government does not interfere in Egyptian legal procedures.'' Analysts say an easing of U S public pressure on Egypt has given the state a freer hand over the past year to act against critics in the runup to an eventual transition of power from Mubarak who, at 79, has been in power for 26 years.

The most obvious successor is Mubarak's 43-year-old son Gamal, who denies having presidential ambitions but holds a senior post in the ruling party.

Reuters RSA RN2255

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