Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Egyptian police have arrested at least 382 people during recent protests against a controversial government decision to hand over two islands to Saudi Arabia.
The New York-based rights group said Wednesday that Egyptian security forces lawyers and activists as well as six foreign journalists were among those detained in the days leading up to and during April 25 mass protests.
The six foreign journalists, including four from France, one from Denmark, and one from Norway, were later released, it said.
Citing activists of the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters, the HRW said that security forces arrested at least 286 people only on Monday, the day of the mass rallies.
“Egypt’s effective zero-tolerance policy for protests leaves people with no outlet to peacefully express their grievances, and protesting can mean years in prison,” said Nadim Houry, the HRW’s deputy director for Middle East.
Houry further called for the release of “all those held solely for peaceful expression,” saying “the parliament should amend the repressive law on public assembly.”
He slammed authorities in Cairo for attempting to “stifle any public discussions” of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s policies, saying Egypt’s military-backed leader seems to only allow the demonstrations in support of his administration.
On April 25, protesters took to the streets en masse despite a ban on all demonstrations and a stark warning from the security officials of a firm response to any anti-government gatherings. Police used tear gas and bird shot to disperse the crowd.
The protests came over two weeks after Sisi announced that the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir fall within the territorial waters of Saudi Arabia based on a maritime border agreement signed with Riyadh.
Tiran Island is located at the entrance of the Straits of Tiran, which separate the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba. Its strategic significance lies in the fact that it is an important sea passage to the major ports of Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel.
The ownership of the islands was handed to Egyptian control in 1982, when Tel Aviv and Cairo signed the so-called Camp David peace accords.
Egypt informed Israel in advance of its intention to transfer the sovereignty over the two islands to Saudi Arabia, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
Meanwhile, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made it clear that Riyadh “will honor all of Egypt’s legal and international commitments in regard to the two islands,” in a clear signal to Israel.