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Egypt: authorities must release activists detained in 'unprecedented' crackdown

(L-R: Mohamed Basheer, Gasser Abdel-Razek and Karim Ennarah; credit: Amnesty International/EIPR)

Three members of respected Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights group arrested in space of five days

Arrests appear to be reprisal for their meeting with Western diplomats

Call on UK to make public statement after Dominic Raab phone call

‘This is a test for the international community’ - Philip Luther

The Egyptian authorities must end their vicious reprisal campaign against the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and immediately and unconditionally release three senior staff members arbitrarily arrested this week, said Amnesty International.

The crackdown took place after the group held a human rights briefing with 13 Western diplomats at EIPR’s office on 3 November. 

Ambassadors from Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland - as well as Chargés d’Affaires of Canada, Norway, and Sweden, and the UK deputy ambassador and representatives from the European Commission in Cairo -  attended the meeting. Diplomats and the EIPR later shared photographs of the meeting on social media.

Yesterday, Gasser Abdel-Razek - EIPR’s Executive Director - became the organisation’s third senior staff member to be detained within five days. Last night, plainclothes security forces arrested the veteran human rights defender at his home in Maadi, Cairo. He then appeared before Supreme State Security Prosecutors at 1.30am, was questioned over fabricated “terrorism”-related charges, and placed in pre-trial detention for 15 days. 

Earlier in the day, prosecutors had also ordered the 15-day detention of EIPR’s Criminal Justice Unit Director, Karim Ennarah, pending investigation on similar charges. Ennarah was arrested on Wednesday while on holiday in Dahab, South Sinai. He was taken to an undisclosed location and detained incommunicado for 24 hours before being questioned by prosecutors about his human rights work.

The first EIPR detention took place on Sunday when security forces arrested the organisation’s Administrative Director, Mohamed Basheer, at his home. After being held for about 12 hours at a facility controlled by the National Security Agency - where he was questioned while blindfolded about the diplomats’ visit and other EIPR work - he was similarly taken to state security prosecutors and detained pending investigation.

The case details of all three activists have been added to an existing case - Case No 855/2020 - which includes several other human rights defenders, many of whom have been detained without trial for more than a year. Prosecutors detained both Abdelrazek and Ennarah on charges of “joining a terrorist group”, in addition to “spreading false news” and “misusing social media”. Mohamed Basheer was questioned about “committing a crime of funding terrorism” in addition to the other three charges. 

Amnesty is calling on countries whose representatives attended the 3 November meeting - including the UK, Canada and Germany - to publicly demand that Egypt release the activists and end its brutal repression of the human rights community. The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reportedly raised the EIPR arrests in a telephone call with his counterpart Sameh Shoukry earlier this week. Amnesty is urging countries such as the UK to make public statements as well as raising the case in such one-to-one interventions. 

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said.

“This is a test for the international community.

“The tepid response by the international community risks emboldening the Egyptian authorities and sends a terrifying message to civil society that human rights work will not be tolerated.

“This is an unprecedented crackdown on the human rights community and could well go beyond EIPR to engulf the few other remaining brave groups.

“These arrests, the smear campaign against the organisation and the government’s baseless claim that EIPR operates illegally, show that this is a well-planned and concerted attack.

“Accusing NGO staff of ‘joining a terrorist group’ is an assault on the organisation and the human rights values it represents.

“There is a need for urgent, coordinated and public action, backed by strong measures, to call on Egyptian authorities to end the crackdown and release all those detained. Failure to act threatens the very survival of the human rights community in Egypt.” 

Ongoing crackdown

This campaign is the latest in a string of crackdowns on NGOs since the 2011 raid and prosecution of staff from five international organisations, known as Case 173, or Egypt’s “foreign funding case”. In 2013, 43 foreign and Egyptian staff were convicted on charges of operating unlawfully and receiving foreign funding.

After years of lobbying by the US and German governments, in a retrial a Cairo Criminal Court acquitted all Case 173 defendants in 2018, but criminal investigations continue against local civil society groups. As part of the case, EIPR’s founder Hossam Bahgat has been under a travel ban since 2016 and his assets have been frozen. At least 30 other human rights defenders are banned from travel and nine have their assets frozen.

EIPR has remained one of a handful of independent human rights organisations that have bravely continued to operate in Egypt. Patrick George Zaki, an EIPR gender rights researcher, remains arbitrarily detained following his arrest in February this year upon his return from studying in Italy. 

Key organisation

Among other things, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which was founded in 2002, works on the rights of religious minorities in Egypt, documents sectarian violence, represents members of the LGBT+ community facing prosecution, and advocates on mental health law. EIPR is also one of the few human rights organisations working on environmental justice in Egypt. 

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