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Journalists and Human Rights Activists Arrested and Beaten in Cairo Crackdown

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Human rights activist Hossam Bahgat reports the military has raided the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in downtown Cairo, which has been the headquarters for the legal effort to protect the pro-democracy demonstrators. He also says the military has locked down Tahrir Square, turning people away at checkpoints from entering. “The biggest alarm today is that there seems to be a series attempts by the army itself, for the first time, of going after foreign journalists and going after human rights organizations, both Egyptian and foreign,” Bahgat says. “With the lack of access to Tahrir Square, we fear that the worst is about to happen and that there is something that the army does not want anyone from the outside world to witness.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined, Sharif, by Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist in Egypt. He’s the founder of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Hossam, you’re on the line with us now from Cairo. Can you tell us where you are and what you learned has happened with human rights organizations there?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: I’m in downtown Cairo, and I’m trying to gain access into Tahrir Square, but it seems that I keep being turned away from military checkpoints that are only allowing medical staff and medicines and ambulances to enter the square today. I’m just past the south of the square, and I saw a line of 15 or 16 ambulances that are parked outside of the square.

But more disturbingly, we just received news from our colleagues at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which had been acting as the main legal aid human rights organization in Egypt and also the headquarter of a coalition of human rights organizations working under the name of the Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, their offices in downtown Cairo have just been raided by the military police, who have asked everyone to lie on the floor face down and to remove the SIM cards from their phones. And their offices are now being searched by the military police. We have information that people inside the offices were not only the legal officers and the staff of the center, but also a representative from Amnesty International in London and a representative from Human Rights Watch were also inside and are currently being questioned. We can’t have access to the building, because there is mob of pro-Mubarak agents that are gathered outside and are not letting anyone in or out of the building, and are chanting slogans accusing human rights defenders of being agents and traitors and spies. And we can’t call anyone, because they’ve all switched their phones off. And when we call the land line of the center, it is a representative of the police that picks up the phone.

That happens in the immediate aftermath of a series of steps that have been taken to target foreign journalists, and many of whom were ordered to evacuate Tahrir Square or were attacked and had their equipment confiscated on the streets. And that has escalated now, because we are getting consistent reports that all foreigners are being stopped on the streets, sometimes by the army personnel and at other times by ordinary citizens on the street in an apparent response to the persistent anti-foreigners message that they’ve been hearing for two days on TV, on the state television, saying that there are foreign agents and foreign forces standing behind the remaining protesters in Tahrir Square.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, the latest news that we have, CPJ talking about cutting off access, a serious, as you were describing, crackdown. Also, the prime minister has said that they will stop the violence, supposedly, the Egyptian prime minister, which of course indicates a level of control.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: Yes, I heard the prime minister’s interview with Al Hayat TV this morning, in which he apologized for the — what he called was a mistake last night, in terms of allowing the pro-Mubarak agents to access Tahrir Square. He said that he demanded an explanation from — I guess from his own government or his own party for this, about, I mean, who made this decision to let the pro-Mubarak agents assault the pro-democracy protesters in the square.

But what is causing the biggest alarm today is that there seems to be a series of attempts by the army itself, for the first time, of going after foreign journalists and going after human rights organizations, both Egyptian and foreign. And with the lack of access to Tahrir Square, we fear that the worst is about to happen and that there is something that the army does not want anyone from the outside world to witness.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, Hossam Bahgat, precisely that point I wanted to raise to you. It’s clear now that the Mubarak government has decided that rather than for him to leave office now, that they are going to basically crack down on the center of the protest. And we’re looking at the potential of another Tiananmen here, not another Philippines victory of the people as against Marcos. So, my question to you: what do you see that people in other parts of the world need to do now, especially those of us here in the United States? Do you think the U.S. government should now move to remove all military aid from the Egyptian military — because, after all, the military depends, to a large extent, on the financial support of the United States — as a means of pressuring it to change its stance of the last few days?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: The most negative development that we are witnessing, starting yesterday, was that the army has given up on, you now, its position of at least apparent neutrality. Yesterday, they made the statement by an army spokesperson inviting all the protesters, the pro-democracy protesters, to go home. And then, within minutes, they removed their barricades and allowed their pro-Mubarak thugs to assault us with stones and Molotov cocktails and, later and early this morning, with live fire. And they disappeared; they were nowhere to be seen. They did not even stay to arm their own — to guard their own tanks, which they left behind.

Now, today, now that it is actually the military personnel that are stopping foreign journalists on the street, confiscating their equipment, going through their notebooks, but also now raiding the offices of a human rights organization and at least temporarily so far detaining the staff and searching their offices, it is clear now that the army has decided to pick a side. And unfortunately, it is not the side of the Egyptian people but the side of the government. We fear now that the army is about to do something that it does not want the rest of the world to see. And the whole world will bear responsibility for what is about to happen, because I think that a blood bath is still avoidable. We need to do everything in our disposal to prevent a massacre from taking place.

AMY GOODMAN: Hossam Bahgat, what do you think the United States can do?

HOSSAM BAHGAT: The United States bears the most responsibility because of the ties that they have with the Egyptian army, but also because of the constant contacts, that have been made public over the past few days, that were made between U.S. Army officials and Egyptian military officials, not to mention of course the fact that the Egyptian army remains almost exclusively funded by the United States. The U.S. can prevent this from taking place and should prevent it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and then come back. We’re speaking with Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist in Egypt, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. We also are joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, on the ground at Tahrir Square, who is senior producer at Democracy Now! This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a second.

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