Human Rights Watch has said that a newly-passed Egyptian law that requires all protests to be authorised by security forces in advance gives police a free hand to "attack protesters."
The statement by the New-York based group comes in the wake of police dispersals of peaceful demonstrations in Cairo on Tuesday -- the first such action by security forces since the law was issued on Sunday.
Two different demonstrations took place in downtown Cairo on Tuesday; one protesting against military trials for civilians, and one commemorating a protester killed by security forces last year. The demonstrations were dispersed by police using water cannons and teargas, and dozens of demonstrators were arrested.
“Tuesday’s protest against military trials provided an opportunity to see how Egyptian authorities would use the new assembly law,” said Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's deputy Middle East and North Africa director in the statement on Wednesday. “What we saw was police treating the new assembly law as a carte blanche to attack protesters, all too familiar to Egyptians after years of police impunity.”
Security officials said the rallies were broken up because protest organisers had not sought prior permission as the new law mandates. The interior ministry also claimed that demonstrators threw stones and bricks at police personnel.
"But Human Rights Watch staff observing the demonstration saw no sign of protester violence, and none of the witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed or extensive video footage Human Rights Watch reviewed indicated that protesters used force," the rights watchdog said on Thursday.
The authorities have come under fire since the law was enacted by interim President Adly Mansour on Sunday, and Tuesday's arrests caused further criticism after pictures of prominent activists, many of them women, being arrested by security forces were widely circulated on social media.
Human Rights Watch included in its statement accounts by female detainees who said that they had been beaten by police, and had been released on a desert highway some 30 kilometres south of the protest venue.
“The violent dispersal and arrests on 26 November serve as a stark reminder of the danger of giving security forces a blank cheque to regulate public assembly,” Stork said. “The government should immediately release those detained solely for exercising their right to demonstrate and rescind the new protest law.”
Egypt has been rocked by renewed unrest since the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi in July after mass protests against his rule.
Since Morsi's exit at the hands of the army, "police have frequently used force to disperse demonstrations organised by supporters of [his] Muslim Brotherhood, sometimes using excessive lethal force," the statement noted.
The country's interim authorities mounted a fierce crackdown on Islamists following Morsi's exit. However, with the issuing of the new legislation, non-Islamist political groups have voiced fears of a broader clampdown to stifle dissent.