The detention of Egyptian investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat became the subject of concern at the UN and the U.S. State Department overnight, as rights groups relentlessly called on Egyptian authorities to release him.
Bahgat, whose whereabouts are unknown, was summoned to the Military Intelligence headquarters on Sunday. One day later, it emerged that he is facing charges of “publishing false news that harms national interests and disseminating information that disturbs public peace."
U.S. State Department Spokesman John Kirby said in a daily press briefing on Monday, "as we’ve said before, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and upholding the rule of law are crucial to Egypt’s long-term stability and prosperity."
Addressing the matter very briefly, he added, "we continue to have frank discussions with the Government of Egypt about those issues," without saying more on Bahgat.
Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said "this is just the latest in a series of detentions of human rights defenders and others that are profoundly worrying to the Secretary-General," in a press briefing provided by his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric on Monday.
Dujarric added that Ban learned of Bahgat's detention "with concern".
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry singled out this particular statement, with Egypt's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abou Zeid denouncing Ban's comments and saying that they addressed individual cases and contained assumptions on freedom of expression, which is guaranteed to all Egyptians, despite the fact that the "reasons behind the investigation are related to clear and unequivocal violations of the Egyptian penal code."
Abou Zeid said it was "important for all to remember" that Egyptian law considers a defendant innocent until proven guilty and that Bahgat's detention is pending an investigation "which his lawyer was allowed to participate in, out of respect for his constitutional right."
Yet, how much the lawyers were allowed to participate is a point of contention, as rights groups locally and internationally highlight that access to Bahgat's lawyers was restricted.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said authorities "allowed him for the first time to ask for lawyers, who were only then able to visit him" on Sunday evening after prosecutors questioned him for hours.
On Monday, lawyers "were not allowed to see Bahgat again" but were told that he would be detained for four more days, HRW said.
"The prosecutors refused to tell the lawyers where Bahgat was being held," the watchdog said.
HRW believes "military prosecutors should drop the charges and release him immediately."
"No civilian should face military prosecution, and Bahgat is being investigated solely for his work as a journalist," HRW added.
The founder of Cairo-based human rights organization The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has been contributing regularly to online news and analysis website Mada Masr, publishing controversial investigations such as “A Coup Busted?”, a meticulous investigation into the secret military trial of 26 army officers accused of plotting "regime change" in coordination with the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
According to a joint statement signed by 17 local Egyptian NGOs and rights organisations, Bahgat is being investigated for that particular feature, published in October.
The rights advocacy groups, which include the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression have called for Bahgat’s release and that charges against him be dismissed.
Within hours of his detention, hashtags calling for solidarity with Bahgat began trending in both English and Arabic on social media with support coming locally and internationally.
International calls for his release includes ones issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, with the latter sending a letter to the Egyptian government.
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