CAIRO (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch accused Egypt's government of trying to silence all criticism, after two of its top staff were held at Cairo airport for 12 hours and then denied entry to the country for "security reasons," the group said on Monday.
Executive Director Kenneth Roth and Middle East and North Africa Director Sarah Leah Whitson had flown to Cairo to launch a report on the mass killings of protesters by security forces one year ago, weeks after the army removed elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi from power.
Human Rights Watch is one of a number of international and Egyptian rights groups that have expressed alarm over an increasingly broad crackdown on dissent by authorities since then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in July 2013.
The lengthy report comes after a year-long investigation, including interviews with more than 200 witnesses to the killings in July and August of 2013. It details the conduct of government security forces in confronting protesters demanding Mursi's reinstatement.
It will be released on Tuesday as scheduled.
"We came to Egypt to release a serious report on a serious subject that deserves serious attention from the Egyptian government,” Roth said in a statement issued by the group.
“Instead of denying the messenger entry to Egypt, the Egyptian authorities should seriously consider our conclusions and recommendations and respond with constructive action.”
Omar Shakir, author and principle researcher of the report, told Reuters Whitson had left the country and Roth would be leaving on a separate flight later in the morning.
Airport authorities said that Roth and Whitson had been turned back on instructions from unnamed security officials.
The officials said the two had informed authorities while having their passports checked on arrival that they were planning to participate in an event related to the one-year anniversary of the deaths of hundreds of Islamist protesters.
Other government officials did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.
HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS
The Muslim Brotherhood, once Egypt's oldest, best organized and most successful political movement, has seen hundreds of its members killed and thousands detained since Mursi's ouster.
Sisi, who went on to win a presidential election in May, vowed during his campaign the Brotherhood would cease to exist under his rule.
Though the Brotherhood was initially singled out, Egypt has gone on to target secular and liberal activists prominent in the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak after 30 years.
Human Rights Watch closed its office in Cairo earlier this year but has continued to criticize the government. It said in a joint statement with Amnesty International in June that Egypt was in the midst of "a human rights crisis as dire as in any period in the country’s modern history."
Shakir said he and his colleagues had looked forward to discussing the results of their investigation with Egyptian civil society.
"It seems the authorities have decided, though, that only one narrative can be heard in Egypt. Shutting us down cannot erase what happened one year ago," Shakir told Reuters after boarding a flight out of the country on Monday morning. "We will continue to demand that those responsible for grave abuses be held accountable."
He said that the New York-based rights group had already shared the key findings of the 188-page report with the Egyptian government but had received no official response.
(Editing by Larry King)