Human rights campaigners have attacked the Egyptian government for its failure to reopen a social science research institute and release several of its staff who have been detained since the beginning of July.
The academic freedom committee of New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the closure of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which it said had established an international reputation for the study of applied social sciences in Egypt and the Arab world.
Hanny Megally, executive director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, said: "Egypt should reopen the centre. This type of harassment is intended to deter other academics from pursuing research and will hurt the free exchange of ideas crucial to a healthy society in advance of an important electoral period."
The authorities have failed to specify exact charges against the detained researchers, whose detention was recently extended for a further 15 days.
In a letter to prime minister Atef Ebeid, the committee called on Egypt "to state its commitment to protecting and promoting academic freedom by either immediately reopening the Ibn Khaldun Center and releasing its staff and associates, or by promptly affording them the opportunity to defend themselves against formal charges in a court of law".
There are fears that the closure indicates increasingly strict limits on academic freedom in Egypt in advance of forthcoming parliamentary elections. Recently the government imposed administrative sanctions on 36 schoolteachers who attended workshops on civil education.
The letter states:"We are particularly alarmed by reports that Nadia Abd al-Nour, the centre's financial director, was subjected to an intimidating interrogation session during which she was removed from her cell at the women's section of al-Qanater prison and transferred late at night to the men's cell block where security forces questioned her in violation of proper judicial process. We believe that the centre's continued closure and the violations of due process for its staff will severely harm the environment for independent research and academic freedom in Egypt."
HRW says that among researchers from the centre in detention is Saad El-Din Ibrahim, a former secretary-general of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights and the Arab Thought Forum. In addition to Dr Ibrahim, who is widely known for his work on democratisation as the chair of the sociology department at the American University in Cairo, at least three other detainees also seem to have been targeted for their research activity. They are Khaled Fayyad, coordinator for political education and electoral rights, and researchers Ayman Jabal and Usama Hammed.
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