GENEVA, (Reuters) – The United Nations’ human rights chief said up to 300 people may have been killed in Egypt’s unrest and called for calm during Tuesday’s protests in Cairo.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged Egyptian authorities to ensure the police and army avoid any excessive use of force and work to protect civilians.
The former U.N. war crimes judge placed blame for the unprecedented protests squarely on the government of President Hosni Mubarak, saying it had committed serious abuses including widespread use of torture while maintaining an emergency law since 1981 despite the absence of major strife.
“Casualties have been mounting on a daily basis, with unconfirmed reports suggesting as many as 300 people may have been killed so far, more than 3,000 injured and hundreds arrested,” Pillay said in a statement.
Her spokesman Rupert Colville said the unconfirmed toll came from its network of non-governmental organisations in Egypt.
“It includes prisoners killed in at least two break-outs from prisons near Cairo,” Colville told Reuters.
Mubarak’s grip on Egypt looked increasingly tenuous after the army pledged not to confront protesters who converged in Cairo to demand an end to his 30-year rule.
At least one million Egyptians took to the streets on Tuesday in scenes never before seen in the Arab nation’s modern history.
“Tuesday’s march seems likely to be a pivotal moment in Egypt’s transition to a freer, fairer and more democratic society,” Pillay said.
“I urge both the army and the police to act with the utmost care and restraint,” she said, stressing protesters should also avoid committing acts of violence.
Authorities should listen to “the demands of the Egyptian people for fundamental reforms to improve human rights and democracy,” said Pillay, who made similar appeals in the days before the fall of Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The emergency law had been abused by security forces and other state institutions, she said.
She urged the government to stop disrupting communications, Internet and transport, as well as media including Al Jazeera. “People have a right to protest, and freedom of information is especially important at times like these,” she said.
Egypt has been ruled under an effectively permanent state of emergency which has seen dissidents and activists subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, widespread use of torture and “flagrantly unfair trials” before exceptional and military courts, according to the International Commission of Jurists.
The Egyptian people have a legitimate right to freedoms of expression and assembly, and any use of force must be proportionate, it said. The Geneva-based ICJ is an international NGO whose 52 eminent jurists seek to uphold the rule of law.
“Our main concern has always been the continuing use of military and exceptional courts to try civilians, political opponents and human rights defenders,” Said Benarbia, ICJ legal adviser for the Middle East and North Africa, told Reuters.
At least 1,300 people had been arrested during the revolt as of last Friday, according to the ICJ, due to carry out a mission to Egypt next month following several in the last 4-5 years.
“The army can play a substantial role in guaranteeing rights and ensuring the peaceful transition of power,” Benarbia said