Human Rights Watch said in a press statement on Monday that Egyptian authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic to automatically renew the pretrial detention of "hundreds and most likely thousands" of prisoners without proper detention renewal hearings since mid-March.
The US-based organistaion criticised the absence of even "the pretence of judicial review" of detention renewals, "a new low for the country's justice system".
Citing Egyptian lawyers, Human Rights Watch said: "Authorities held no detention renewal hearings between mid-March and the beginning of May, when courts partially closed under Covid-19 measures."
"Between May 2 and May 9, Supreme State Security prosecutors and criminal courts – responsible for reviewing pretrial detention beyond five months – extended pretrial detention almost automatically for all detainees who were up for renewal."
Since the 2013 military coup and the subsequent crackdown on dissidents and opponents, Egyptian authorities have been repeatedly criticised by rights groups, journalists and political activists for keeping political detainees held in custody, pending trial, for extended periods beyond the two-year limit permitted by law.
But Egyptian officials have repeatedly stressed that all detainees are treated in accordance with the law, according to Anadolu Agency.
Human Rights Watch has called on Egyptian judges to "immediately review the detention of all those in prolonged pretrial detention and order their release pending trial unless there is clear evidence that there is a legal necessity for their detention before trial, such as a clear threat to witnesses or risk of flight."
On 15 March, Egypt announced a partial closure of courts until the beginning of May, with limited exceptions, as part of measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.