CAIRO (AP) — Egypt slammed the U.N. chief on Wednesday, accusing him of meddling in its affairs after Ban Ki-moon called for a fair trial for two prominent rights activists accused of illegally receiving foreign funds for their non-government organizations.
The rebuke was the latest sign of Egypt's growing impatience with international criticism of its human rights record.
The development came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a brief visit to Cairo, meeting President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for talks that appeared partially designed to bury a recent public spat between the two longtime allies over Egypt's human rights record.
In admonishing the U.N. chief, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said that comments made by Ban were "attempts to intimidate the Egyptian judiciary and influence its work."
A spokesman for Ban said in a statement late Tuesday that he was "following closely" the government's legal case against NGOs over the foreign funds issue and that the two activists — Gamal Eid and Hossam Bahgat — should "benefit from all due process and fair trial standards."
Eid and Bahgat appeared Wednesday before a criminal court in Cairo that was to decide whether to freeze their assets. The court ruled to postpone the case until May 23.
Eid is the founder and director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, is now among Egypt's most prominent investigative journalists.
El-Sissi's government has placed restrictions on civil rights groups at a time when criticism is growing of Egypt's human rights record, particularly police abuse and what activists say their culture of torture and denial of basic rights to detainees.
El-Sissi, who has overseen a harsh crackdown against Islamists since 2013, ordered his interior minister Wednesday to swiftly bring to justice policemen behind "irresponsible" acts. However, similar past orders by el-Sissi have produced little tangible change to a police force activists say is operating with impunity.
The case of an Italian doctoral student abducted, tortured and killed in Cairo this year has fueled the criticism and poisoned Cairo's close ties with Rome. Italy has withdrawn its ambassador from Egypt in protest against what it says is the lack of full cooperation by Egyptian investigators in the case of the student, Giulio Regeni. El-Sissi has denied any involvement in the case by Egypt's security forces.
The case against Eid and Bahgat is part of a wider legal drive by authorities against NGOs over the issue of foreign funding. The legal proceedings began in 2011, became dormant for a few years, but were recently revived.
This week, authorities began separate legal proceedings to freeze the assets of four other rights activists in what appears to be an escalation in the face of the growing criticism abroad.
Speaking to reporters in Cairo, Kerry said he had a "very serious and very constructive" discussion with el-Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri.
Washington, he said, viewed Egypt as "critical" to regional peace and security and wanted to help it succeed in its efforts to overcome the "difficult challenges" it faces economically as well as in its fight against a resilient insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula led by militants from the local affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group.
"We also (held) talks about ways in which we can hopefully resolve some of the differences and questions that have arisen about the internal politics and choices for the people of Egypt," Kerry said, alluding to the recent spat over human rights.
Kerry last month said Egypt's revival of the case against rights groups came amid "a wider backdrop of arrests and intimidation of political opposition, journalists, civil society activists and cultural figures." That drew a sharp response from Shukry, who said Egypt rejected "tutelage" over human rights from other countries.
Egypt's human rights record also figured prominently during a visit here this week by French President Francois Hollande, whose country is a key foreign backer of el-Sissi's government with multi-billion dollar investments and arms sales.
"Here, we are safeguarding 90 million people who must live," el-Sissi said in reply to a reporter's question during a joint news conference with Hollande.
Then, in a stern warning, he added: "You have no idea what will happen to the region and to Europe if this nation collapses. We do not ignore human rights, but you must know that there are evil powers that work toward giving a negative impression about what is going on in Egypt."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.