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Last updated: November 26, 2013 10:43 pm
Police in Egypt arrested several high-profile rights activists and fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of protesters in Cairo on Tuesday, in the first test of a new law that restricts demonstrations.
Dozens of people were arrested during two protests, both held without police approval, in a challenge to the law passed by the military-backed authorities which came into force on Sunday. They included the young female activists who founded No To Military Trials for Civilians, a rights group born in the tumultuous transition which followed the 2011 revolution when a council of senior officers led the country.
Later in the night the female detainees – about 20 – were loaded on to a police van and dumped on a desert road south of Cairo, according to activists.
“Worst fears realised today. Some of Egypt’s leading human rights activists arrested protesting. Bad law, bad news,” tweeted Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International.
The use of force and detention precipitated an immediate crisis with about 10 of the 50 members of the body that is drafting Egypt’s constitution saying they would suspend their participation until the detainees were released.
Local and international rights groups had condemned the protest law as repressive but the interior ministry said it was necessary to restore security in the face of near-daily demonstrations by supporters of Mohamed Morsi, the elected Islamist president ousted by a popularly backed coup in July.
The legislation, coupled with an article in the draft constitution allowing military courts to try civilians, has angered activists who fear the country is moving towards a new authoritarianism three years after popular protests unseated Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat who ruled for three decades.
Egypt has brushed off as interference in its domestic affairs criticism by the US that the law did not meet international standards and would hamper the move to democracy.
Protesters chanting slogans against military trials had congregated on Tuesday afternoon on a narrow pavement across a busy street from parliament where the constitution-writing panel meets.
The prospect of Egypt descending into civil war is growing as the army tightens its grip and the death toll from its crackdown on the opposition mounts
After issuing a warning, police fired water cannon, then an armoured vehicle shot teargas at the demonstrators which sent them scurrying away. Policemen wielding batons grabbed protest leaders in the grounds of parliament before taking them to a police station in the east of the city.
The detainees include Mona Seif, Salma Said and Nazli Shahine, all from No to Military Trials for Civilians.
Rasha Abdullah, a university lecturer and member of the group, said the detainees had been beaten and molested during their arrests. She said at least 48 people had been arrested and that the women had refused an offer to be released while the men remained in custody.
“They [the authorities] have to understand that the protesters will not give in,” said Ms Abdulla. “We are going to keep at it until they repeal the demonstration law. It is not possible that people who were only chanting on the street should have that happen to them.”
Earlier on Tuesday, police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse secular activists holding a rally in central Cairo to commemorate a colleague shot dead by the security services a year ago. The official news agency said 20 people were arrested.
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