,GENEVA - Western countries on Friday called on Egypt to end the prosecution of activists, journalists and perceived political opponents under counter-terrorism laws, and to release them unconditionally. The United States, which has observer status at the U.N. Human Rights Council, was among 31 signatories of the joint statement on Egypt, the first since 2014, which called on Cairo to lift curbs on freedoms of expression and assembly. Egypt's foreign ministry expressed "great surprise and disapproval" in reaction to the statement, which it said contained inaccurate information without proof. Egypt is a close ally of the United States, but the Biden administration has vowed to speak out about human rights violations and abuses of the rule of law worldwide. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013, has overseen an extensive crackdown on political dissent that has steadily tightened in recent years. Sisi has said there are no political prisoners in Egypt and that stability and security are paramount. "We urge Egypt to guarantee space for civil society – including human rights defenders – to work without fear of intimidation, harassment, arrest, detention or any other form of reprisal," Finland's ambassador Kirsti Kauppi said, reading out the statement to the Geneva forum. "That includes lifting travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders – including EIPR staff," she said, referring to three activists from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights arrested last November after briefing senior diplomats in Cairo. Egypt's foreign ministry had said the EIPR was operating illegally, an accusation the group denies. The trio have been provisionally released, but the arrests galvanised support for the move in the council, activists and diplomats said. "It's been seven years since there has been any kind of collective action on Egypt at the Human Rights Council, all the while the situation has declined sharply - this is a crucial step," Kevin Whelan, Amnesty International representative to the UN in Geneva, told Reuters. "We're at the point where the survival of the human rights movement in Egypt is at stake." Most of the signatory countries are European, joined by Australia, Canada and New Zealand. No countries from the African or Middle East region backed the statement. REUTERS
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