CAIRO, April 4 (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch has cautioned Washington against resuming military assistance to Egypt until its military-backed government ends alleged rights abuses and holds violators accountable.
The New York-based advocacy group on Friday released a letter it had sent earlier in the week to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, following comments indicating that he would make a decision on aid resumption in the coming weeks.
Washington cut assistance to Cairo in October, withholding deliveries of tanks, fighter aircraft and other military equipment, as well as $260 million in cash aid after authorities used violence to put down protests following the ousting of Mohamed Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected president.
The crackdown on Mursi's supporters and other government critics has challenged Egypt's long-standing relationship with the United States, which has provided the most populous Arab country with about $1.3 billion a year in aid since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
Under U.S. law, the administration is obliged to halt aid to a country where it assesses that a coup has taken place. Kerry must certify that Egypt is moving towards a democratic transition and protecting basic freedoms for the aid to resume.
"In the view of Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian authorities continue to violate basic rights essential for the functioning of democracy," the letter said.
It said the military-backed government had killed more than 1,000 protesters and detained at least 16,000 people since Mursi was ousted in July following mass protests against his rule.
Last week more than 500 Brotherhood supporters were sentenced to death in a mass hearing condemned by rights groups and Western governments.
A State Department spokeswoman said the trial could have an impact on the decision to restore aid or cut it further.
"The question is no longer whether Egypt is on the road to democratic transition, but how much of its brute repression the U.S. will paper over," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
"An accurate appraisal of Egypt's record since the military-backed overthrow of President Mursi would conclude that, far from developing basic freedoms, the Egyptian authorities are doing the opposite."
Cairo denies allegations of human rights abuses and says it needs wide-ranging security powers to combat Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood which it has declared a "terrorist organisation". The Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism.
The government stepped up security measures this week and took steps to strengthen punishments for what it calls "terrorist crimes" following bombings near Cairo University on Wednesday that killed two people.
Bombings and shootings targeting the security forces have become commonplace in Egypt since the army deposed Mursi. The government has put the death toll from such attacks at nearly 500 people, most of them soldiers and police. (Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alison Williams)