Egypt bars HRW head ahead of Rabaa killings report

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood raise four fingers, the symbol known as "Rabaa", remembering those killed in the crackdown on the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp in Cairo last year, during a demonstration in Cairo in January 2014 (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Khaled) (AFP/File)

Cairo (AFP) - Egypt has barred the head of Human Rights Watch from entering the country ahead of the release of a report on a mass killing of protesters, HRW officials said Monday.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based NGO, and HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson were held overnight in Cairo airport before being denied entry, Whitson wrote on Twitter.

"It's official - shortest visit to Cairo ever - 12 hours before deportation for 'security reasons'- the new Egypt certainly 'transitioning'," Whitson wrote.

The rights activists had flown to Cairo for the release of a report to mark a year since the mass killing of an estimated 700 opposition protesters, in one of the deadliest incidents of its kind in decades.

The protesters, supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, had been camped out around the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo for weeks when police moved in to disperse them on August 14, using tear gas and live ammunition.

The United States, which has cooperative ties with Egypt's army-backed government, said it was "disappointed" at the exclusion of Human Rights Watch.

"We continue to have serious concerns regarding the events from last August and encourage the government of Egypt to conduct transparent investigations," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in Washington.

"A strong, vibrant civil society is important to the success of Egypt's ongoing transition and we will keep making that very clear to Egypt," she said.

A government official last year estimated roughly 700 protesters were killed in the dispersal, along with eight policemen.

Rights activists say the number of dead could have been significantly higher.

"Rab'a massacre numbers rank with Tiananmen and Andijan but Egypt gov't wouldn't let me in to present report on it," Roth wrote on Twitter.

The interior ministry late on Monday defended the decision to bar the two activists.

"The authorities had notified them that their visit had been postponed to September as the suggested dates were not suitable," the ministry said in a statement.

"It stressed (to HRW) that the delegation won't be allowed inside the country on tourist visas since it did not match the purpose of its visit," it said, indicating that the two activists had not taken prior visas from Egyptian consulates before arriving to cairo.