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Jun 23, 8:10 AM EDT

HRW calls on Egypt to free members of satirical street group

AP Photo
AP Photo/Amr Nabil

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HRW calls on Egypt to free members of satirical street group

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CAIRO (AP) -- Human Rights Watch on Thursday called on Egypt's government to release from detention four members of a satirical street group who posted video clips on social media that mocked President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and criticized an agreement with Saudi Arabia that would hand control over two Red Sea islands to Riyadh.

Five of the group's six members were detained last month, but one was later released on bail. The sixth member is in hiding. The five, according to their lawyer, are accused of using social media networks to insult state institutions and inciting protests and the overthrow of the regime. If convicted, they face up to 10 years in prison and a $1,000 fine.

"This kind of blanket repression leaves young people with few outlets to express themselves or joke about their daily hardships," Nadim Houry of the New York-based rights advocacy group said in a statement. "Egypt's youth have been a driving force for change since the 2011 uprising. Upholding human rights and free speech is the best way for el-Sissi to begin to repair the government's relationship with them."

El-Sissi's government has eroded many of the freedoms won by the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. It responds to criticism of its human rights record by insisting it must strike a balance between stability and freedoms.

The six-man group, Awlad Shawarea, or "Street Children," has a large social media following. It shoots selfie-style clips on the streets that deal mostly with social and political issues.

Some of the group's recent work has directly mocked el-Sissi. One video was entitled "el-Sissi, my president, made things worse," while another clip mocked his habit of ending speeches with "Long live Egypt!" An entire clip was devoted to criticizing the government's intention to surrender control of the two islands to Saudi Arabia.

"There is no evidence to support any of the accusations they face," said the lawyer, Mahmoud Othman. "Have we reached the stage where the government is so scared and weak that it's prepared to jail young men for a satirical video?" Othman said on Thursday. "They have no political affiliations of any kind. The government in this case is essentially seeking to erode their creativity."

A court on Tuesday rejected as "unconstitutional" the Saudi-Egyptian accord and said the islands of Tiran and Sanafir were unquestionably Egyptian. The government, which is appealing the verdict, insists that signing the April agreement was an act of sovereignty that the court had no jurisdiction over.

The court said the extent to which a government exercises "sovereign" rights reflects its commitment or lack thereof to democratic values. It also criticized the handling of the case by government lawyers, saying they refused to argue the substance of the case and not presenting any documents in defense of the agreement.

The Supreme Administrative Court, which rules on cases challenging the executive branch of government, will convene on Sunday to look into the government's appeal.

The agreement sparked the largest anti-government protests since el-Sissi took office in 2014. Authorities responded the April demonstrations by arresting hundreds of protesters and activists, but most were later acquitted, released on bail or fined after brief trials.

Another batch of protesters was acquitted by a Cairo court on Wednesday. The 22 were charged with taking part in an illegal protest and spreading false news. The judge, Hussein Jihad, said the police report did not present any concrete evidence to support the charges.

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