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U.N. postpones conference on torture after rights groups' criticism

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CAIRO (Reuters) – The United Nations has postponed a conference in Cairo on torture that was to take place in September following criticism from rights groups that say torture is rampant in Egypt.

“We are well aware of the growing unease in some parts of the NGO community with the choice of location,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said.

“As a result we have decided to postpone the conference and reopen the process of consultation with all relevant actors,” Colville added.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was to co-host the regional conference on defining and criminalising torture with the government’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) on Sept. 4 and 5.

Rights activists were outraged by the UN decision to hold the conference in Egypt and say that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has presided over the worst crackdown on freedoms in Egypt’s modern history.

“Egypt was found to carry out ‘systematic torture’ by the UN’s principal treaty body dealing with combating torture in 2017, under both (President Mohamed) Mursi and Sisi,” Felice Gaer, a member of the U.N. committee against torture, told Reuters by email on Tuesday.

Cairo has frequently dismissed reports by human rights organisations on torture, saying they lack credibility and are politically motivated.

Authorities say Egypt is a law-abiding state and that any rights violations are merely individual cases whose perpetrators are held accountable.

In February, the U.N. Human Rights office voiced concern over trials that led to the executions of 15 people in Egypt that month may have been unfair. It said torture may have been used to obtain confessions.

A Reuters report last month found that at least 179 people were executed in Egypt from 2014 to May 2019, up from only 10 in the previous six years.

“The decision to host the conference in Egypt is peculiar, it is as if they are rewarding Egypt for the amount of torture that takes place in it,” said Aida Seif el-Dawla, director of the Nadeem Center, which documented alleged human rights abuses and treated torture victims.

The centre was raided in 2017 and shut down.

(Reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay, additional reporting and writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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