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Rights group accuses Egyptian police of 'forcibly disappearing' rights lawyer

CAIRO (Reuters) - An international rights group on Wednesday accused Egyptian authorities of "forcibly disappearing" a prominent human rights lawyer who was due to be released from prison last month but whose whereabouts remain unknown.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Ezzat Ghoneim, head of the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), was last seen by his wife on Sept. 13 at a police station south of Cairo.

An interior ministry official could not immediately be reached to comment on the report. Egypt denies any rights abuses and says its security forces focus on fighting militants plotting to undermine the country's stability.

Ghoneim's lawyer, Halem Henish, told Reuters his client was detained in March for investigation into allegations that included joining an illegal organisation and helping a mother speak to foreign media on her daughter's alleged forced disappearance, a charge that he had denied.

“Forcibly disappearing a lawyer in the face of a judge’s order explicitly authorizing his release reflects Egyptian security forces’ contempt for the rule of law,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.

A judge ordered Ghoneim freed on Sept. 4 on condition that he report to a police station twice a week.

Authorities moved him on Sept. 8 to a police station near the pyramids, where his wife was able to visit him regularly, his lawyer said, before he disappeared on Sept. 13.

Since coming to power in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has presided over a crackdown on Islamist opponents and liberal activists, which rights groups say is the worst in modern Egyptian history.

Sisi's supporters maintain that he has been trying to combat an Islamist insurgency and restore order following years of chaos after Arab Spring demonstrations forced former President Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011.

(Reporting by Yousef Saba; editing by Sami Aboudi)

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