Rights group cautions Egypt on election harassment

The London-based Amnesty International called on Egyptian authorities to refrain from harassing election candidates as hundreds of opposition members have been arrested and their marches dispersed.

The opposition Muslim Brotherhood said Sunday that several of its rallies have been disrupted and more than a thousand of its members have been detained since the banned group announced their intention to contest elections last month.

"The Egyptian authorities must uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly and ensure that peaceful protesters are not arbitrarily arrested and detained," the rights group's Mideast director, Malcolm Smart, said in the statement issued late Saturday.

Amnesty also said the government was restricting public access to information by suppressing newspapers and satellite television stations.

The state press reported that clashes took place over the weekend across six provinces, mostly in the north, the heartland of Brotherhood support, and 30 policemen were injured. There were also some 20 marches by Brotherhood supporters on Friday across the Egypt's second largest city of Alexandria.

The port city's police chief told the daily Al-Shorouk that 2,000 supporters of Brotherhood parliamentary candidates marched through the city blocking traffic and chanting religious slogans in violation of the rule banning the use of religious imagery in campaigning.

Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim said 50 trucks of riot police were sent to deal with the march which was dispersed with tear gas. He warned that further marches and attempts to disrupt public safety would be confronted "decisively."

The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood is the top rival to the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak heading into the Nov. 28 vote. Many in Egypt fear the contest will see the same widespread violence that plagued the last parliamentary elections, in 2005, when police and government-backed vigilantes stopped people from casting ballots and clashed with rivals.

"Voters at polling stations should be protected by the Egyptian security forces, not intimidated or harassed by them as so often occurred during the last parliamentary elections in 2005," the Amnesty statement said.

The Brotherhood, which is the best-organized opposition force in the country, says it has been pummeled by a wave of arrests with 300 members and supporters of the movement taken since Friday.

In 2005 elections, the Brotherhood surprised the country by winning 88 seats in parliament, a fifth of the body and about 10 times more than any other opposition group.

But it has faced since faced a major government crackdown and the organization has predicted it will lose many of those seats in the coming election due to government interference. Though the group is officially banned, candidates can compete as independents.

This year's parliament vote comes amid uncertain political times in Egypt, with presidential elections due next year. The 82-year-old Mubarak, in power for nearly 30 years, had gall bladder surgery earlier this year, raising questions over his health — though party officials say he will run for another six-year term. Many believe he is grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him.

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Associated Press reporter Maggie Michael contributed to this report.