CAIRO (AP) — At least 2,600 people were killed in violence in the 18 months after the military overthrew Egypt's president in 2013, nearly half of them supporters of the Islamist leader, the head of a state-sanctioned rights body said Sunday.
Mohammed Fayeq, head of the National Council for Human Rights, told reporters that the 2,600 included 700 policemen and 550 civilians who were killed in the period between June 30, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2014.
The council is a nominally independent group sanctioned by the government. It has no judicial or law enforcement powers.
The military overthrew Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, on July 3, 2013, amid massive protests demanding his resignation. In the following months, his supporters held regular demonstrations that set off deadly clashes with police and rival protesters.
The violence culminated on Aug. 14, 2013, when police violently dispersed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, killing at least 600 of his supporters. Islamic militants retaliated by attacking police stations and churches.
Since then, the military-backed government has waged a sweeping crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood -- now outlawed and branded a terrorist group -- and jailed secular activists for taking part in unauthorized street protests. Those jailed include some of the leading secular and left-wing activists behind the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
An appeals court in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria on Sunday sentenced prominent activist and rights lawyer Mahienour el-Masry to 15 months in jail for her part in a demonstration by lawyers against police brutality three months before Morsi's ouster. Two other Alexandria activists were convicted and received a similar prison term.
On hearing the verdict, el-Masry chanted "Down, down with military rule!"
Fayeq criticized the practice of detaining suspects for extended periods pending the filing of formal charges and trial, saying it amounts to "punishment for crimes not committed." He said holding cells at police stations are filled to 400 percent capacity and prisons to 160 percent.
Fayeq said that while the Interior Ministry, which controls the country's police, announced the deaths of 36 people in detention, various human rights groups put the figure at between 80 and 98.
"The phenomenon of death in detention had disappeared after the 2011 uprising, but has since made a comeback. There is no proof that they died as a result of torture, but there is also nothing to prove otherwise," he said.
Another human rights group, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, issued a critical report on Sunday saying authorities were selectively using lengthy detentions to jail activists. Prominent Mubarak-era officials, as well as police officers accused of killing protesters, have been mostly spared such lengthy detentions, even though they are well-positioned to leave the country, intimidate witnesses or tamper with evidence.
Rights groups and activists have alleged widespread human rights abuses since Morsi's ouster, including the return of the Mubarak-era practice of using torture to punish detainees or extract confessions.
Negad Borai, a lawyer and rights activist, was questioned twice by investigating judges this month for drafting an anti-torture law and sending it to the office of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as military chief led Morsi's ouster and who was elected president a year ago.
The law would have prescribed stricter punishment for those found guilty of torture and provide state assistance for victims.
Two senior judges that Borai consulted on the draft are expected to be disciplined, according to Borai.
"My questioning over the draft law is a message that says the state protects torture," he told The Associated Press.
The government has defended its practices as being necessary to combat Islamic militancy, including from an increasingly potent Islamic State group affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, where militants blew up a natural gas pipeline early Sunday. El-Sissi himself has called for reform in Islam in order to disassociate it from extremists.
But Islam Behery, a young Muslim scholar who used his popular TV show to promote a revisionist approach to some of the fundamentals of mainstream Islam, was sentenced to five years in jail in absentia for "showing contempt" toward Islam, a loosely defined charge that in the past has been leveled against members of the Coptic Christian minority. Behery did not attend the Saturday court hearing during which he was convicted and sentenced, and his whereabouts were not immediately known.
El-Sissi has said he wants the Cairo-based Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's top seat of learning and a bastion of religious conservatism, to take the lead on reforms.
Egyptian law grants a new trial to those convicted and sentenced in absentia when they turn themselves in or are arrested.