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Police, demonstrators clash at rally for Egyptian judges

CAIRO -- Thousands of riot police clubbed and arrested protesters and journalists yesterday as the Egyptian government clamped down on a demonstration organized to support pro-reform judges.

Carrying shields and sticks, police and plainclothes security officers flooded the streets of the capital in the morning, sealing off roads, closing subway stations, and waiting for protests to begin. As chanting bands of demonstrators attempted to coalesce into a street protest, the riot police swarmed. Men and women were dragged over asphalt, kicked, and beaten bloody. Many were forced into police vehicles and taken away.

Journalists attempting to cover the protest also came under attack. Among those assaulted were a Reuters photographer, a cameraman for Al-Jazeera, and a Los Angeles Times reporter.

''I've never seen the level of brutality I saw today," said Rabab Mahdi, a 31-year-old political science lecturer at American University in Cairo.

The attack on demonstrators was the latest eruption amid a general crackdown on Egypt's fledgling, grass-roots democracy movement. Despite the promises of political change and the air of relative liberty that gripped the country last year, Hosni Mubarak's regime now appears keen to silence, or at least quiet, dissent.

Dozens of opposition figures, including activists from the Muslim Brotherhood and antigovernment leftists, have been jailed. More than 50 prodemocracy activists are held in the notorious Tora Prison, south of Cairo. They include prominent blogger Alaa Seif al-Islam, whose website has been publishing virulent anti-Mubarak writings and photographs. About 40 of the inmates are said to be carrying on a hunger strike to protest their prison conditions.

The Egyptian government has postponed for two years local elections that were to be held in April. It has renewed its controversial emergency law, which allows for arbitrary arrest and detention without charge. The lifting of the emergency law was a key promise in Mubarak's election campaign.

Attempts to reach Egyptian officials for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.

In Washington, the State Department strongly criticized the Egyptian government's actions.

''We are deeply concerned by reports of Egyptian government arrests and repression of demonstrators protesting election fraud and calling for an independent judiciary," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. ''Particularly troubling are reports of Egyptian police tactics against demonstrators and journalists covering the event that left many injured.

The demonstration was planned as a show of solidarity for two key leaders among Egypt's judges, who have accused the regime of election fraud. Judges Hisham Bastaweesi and Mahmoud Mekki have been accused of defaming the government for publicly accusing Mubarak's regime of fraud and abuse during last fall's parliamentary elections. The two were scheduled to appear before a disciplinary tribunal yesterday, but both refused to attend after their lawyers and supporters were barred from entering.

''Never has the judiciary been insulted, humiliated, and stepped on in the history of Egypt before," Bastaweesi said yesterday in a telephone interview. ''The government has lost all the respect it had. The Egyptian citizen is being dragged in the streets by security as if they were animals, not human beings."

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