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May 2, 3:28 PM EDT

Egypt journalists stage protest over police raid at union


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AP Photo/Brian Rohan

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CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's journalists' union called for the dismissal of the interior minister and launched an open-ended sit-in at its headquarters in downtown Cairo on Monday, protesting the detention of two journalists on its premises the previous night.

After an emergency meeting in the early morning hours, the Journalist Syndicate also announced a general assembly to be held on Wednesday as well action on World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday.

Throughout the day, dozens gathered at the building's steps, chanting "journalists are not terrorists," and "the Interior Ministry are thugs." But most of the side streets were eventually blocked off by police up to several blocks away, and by the end of the day entry to the area was heavily restricted.

The union described the police's entry into the building as a "raid by security forces whose blatant barbarism and aggression on the dignity of the press and journalists and their syndicate has surprised the journalistic community and the Egyptian people." Union members said the raid was heavy-handed, involving dozens of officers storming their way in and resulting in a security guard being injured.

Police denied they entered the building by force and said only eight officers were involved, acting on an arrest warrant for the two journalists accused of organizing protests to destabilize the country. Demonstrations without prior authorization are banned in Egypt and rallies in general are rarely allowed unless they are pro-government. Protesters are subject to arrest.

"The Ministry of Interior affirms that it did not raid the syndicate or use any kind of force in arresting the two, who turned themselves in as soon as they were told of the arrest warrant," the ministry said in a statement.

The two journalists, Amr Badr and Mahmoud el-Sakka, are government critics who work for a website known as January Gate, which is also critical of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government. They had begun their own mini-sit-in at the union headquarters after discovering that police had searched their homes while looking for them.

It was unclear what size any sit-in at the syndicate could achieve. Police had lifted a days-long blockade overnight, but then began tougher restrictions on who could enter as the day went on. Heavily armed swat teams and barbed-wire covered transport vehicles withdrew from the street in front of the union building, but remained parked at nearby thoroughfares, where families and teenagers strolled past trucks loaded with men in black paramilitary uniforms.

Hundreds of uniformed and undercover police have been deployed in the nearby vicinity to prevent any protests, although Monday is a national holiday in Egypt celebrating the first day of spring and much of Cairo was empty of its usual chaotic traffic.

Later in the day, the prosecutor general's office issued a statement saying the two journalists were arrested under an April 19 warrant and that "firearms, Molotov cocktails and inflammatory leaflets" were found during the searches of their homes.

A day earlier, police prevented hundreds of workers from holding a meeting at the syndicate building to commemorate International Workers' Day, prompting calls by independent trade union leaders for the government to allow them freedom of assembly.

The syndicate has invited the trade union leaders to join their sit-in to denounce the police incursion and protest restrictions on freedom of assembly for labor organizers. It said the move was illegal and violated its state-sponsored charter, which forbids police from entering the building without the presence of a syndicate official, and is urging security forces to end their "siege" of the building and stop preventing journalists from entering.

The journalists' syndicate has been a rallying point for demonstrations in the past, and even under longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, it was one of the rare places people could air grievances without fear of arrest. But is increasingly being blockaded, for example last Monday when organizers of mass anti-government protests called to use it as a rallying point.

The building drew particular attention of late because it was from there that some 2,000 demonstrators gathered last month to protest el-Sissi's decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Police fired tear gas and arrested dozens to break up the protests, the first significant wave of street demonstrations since the former army chief became president in 2014.

A second round of mass demonstrations over the issue planned for last Monday across the city were stifled by a massive security presence, with hundreds of arrests and only small flash mobs managing to assemble, drawing tear gas and birdshot from the riot police.

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