Egypt's police have been implicated in an "unprecedented spike" in enforced disappearances since early 2015 aimed at quashing dissent, Amnesty International said in a report Wednesday, while Cairo responded with a strongly worded statement accusing the organization of bias and prejudice.
"Enforced disappearance has become a key instrument of state policy in Egypt. Anyone who dares to speak out is at risk," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director.
The London-based human rights group said abuses had surged since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and unleashed a crackdown on Islamist and secular dissidents.
Children were among those being kept at undisclosed locations for up to several months at a time "to intimidate opponents and wipe out peaceful dissent," the report said.
The report documents 17 cases, including five children, who had disappeared for periods of "between several days to seven months," according to the statement.
One of them, Mazen Mohamed Abdallah, who was 14 in September, had been subjected to "horrendous abuse" including "being repeatedly raped with a wooden stick in order to extract a false 'confession'," Amnesty said.
Another child of the same age when arrested in January, Aser Mohamed, "was beaten, given electric shocks all over his body and suspended from his limbs in order to extract a false 'confession'," said the rights watchdog.
Egyptian authorities have denied they practice torture, but say there have been isolated incidents of abuse and those responsible have been prosecuted.
The National Council for Human Rights, the country's official rights watchdog, said on July 3 it had raised 266 cases of enforced disappearances with the interior ministry between April 2015 and end of March. Many of them have since been accounted for.
Amnesty's report "exposes… the collusion between national security forces and judicial authorities," said Luther.
He accused them of being "prepared to lie to cover their tracks" or failing to investigate torture allegations, "making them complicit in serious human rights violations".
An average of three to four people disappeared each day, Amnesty said, citing Egyptian non-governmental organisations.
It said they were usually detained at their homes by heavily armed forces, adding investigations were rarely opened when family members complain.
Even then, authorities closed the investigations once they acknowledged the people were in the custody of the National Security Agency, the secret police apparatus.
Prosecutors "cruelly betrayed their duty under Egyptian law to protect people from enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest, torture and other ill-treatment," said Luther.
Counter-terrorism was "being used as an excuse to abduct, interrogate and torture people who challenge the authorities," he was quoted as saying in the report.
An affiliate of the Islamic State group has waged an insurgency in Egypt's northern Sinai region since Morsi's overthrow that has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers.
Responding to the report, Egypt Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said Egypt has rejected such similar reports from Amnesty International on more than one occasion.
"It's biased, politically motivated and is interested in defaming Egypt's image, and there is no further comment. Any objective reader of Amnesty International reports on Egypt will find from the first instant that it depends on sources expressing a single opinion, [and on] persons and views hostel to the Egyptian state," Abu Zeid said in a statement.
Amnesty has ignored the fact that Egypt's judicial system has already addressed the various cases mentioned in the report, on the bases of law and constitution, he said.