Egypt: NGOs 'being treated like an enemy of the state', say 14 leading NGOs

Defendants on trial over receiving foreign funds to operate unlicensed NGOs © Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images
Crackdown includes jails sentences, forced closures, travel bans, asset freezes and ever-widening judicial investigations
 
A group of leading international human rights organisations has criticised Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on NGOs. 
 
The 14 organisations - including Amnesty International, Article 19, Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch and Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy - have expressed concern after the Egyptian authorities summoned human rights workers for questioning, banned them from travel and attempted to freeze their personal funds and family assets. 
 
These moves seem to indicate that a five-year investigation into the funding and registration of independent human rights groups in Egypt could soon result in criminal charges.
 
The investigation into the funding of local and foreign groups began in July 2011, five months after the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak, and has already led to convictions and the closure of the Egypt offices of five international NGOs. It is currently being conducted by a panel of three judges chosen by the Cairo Court of Appeals at the request of the Justice Ministry. 
 
Under Egyptian law, prosecutors could charge leading human rights activists for working without official registration or accepting foreign funding without government authorisation. An amendment to the penal code passed in September 2014 allows a sentence of up to life imprisonment (which equates to 25 years in prison in Egypt) for the latter charge.
 
The 14 organisations said the Egyptian authorities should halt their persecution of these groups and drop the investigation.
 
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Said Boumedouha said:
 
“Egypt’s civil society is being treated like an enemy of the state, rather than a partner for reform and progress.”
 
Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Deputy Director Nadim Houry said:
 
“The Egyptian authorities have moved beyond scaremongering and are now rapidly taking concrete steps to shut down the last critical voices in the country’s human rights community.” 
 

Asset freezes and travel bans

The crackdown on Egypt’s human rights activists has gathered pace in recent months. On 22 March, Mozn Hassan, founder and director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, was summoned for questioning as a defendant in the foreign funding case. She is due to appear before the investigating judges next week (29 March 29).
 
On 19 March, a Cairo criminal court heard a request from the investigating judges to freeze the assets of Hossam Bahgat - a journalist and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who currently writes for the Egyptian news website Mada Masr - and Gamal Eid, a lawyer and the director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. The judges’ request also extended to the assets of Eid’s wife and 11-year-old daughter. The court postponed the hearing to tomorrow (24 March), while on 21 March the investigating judges also imposed a gagging order preventing local media from reporting on the case. Meanwhile, a Cairo criminal court had already issued an order in February to bar Bahgat and Eid from travelling outside Egypt. 
 
Courts, prosecutors and security agencies have barred at least ten human rights activists from travel in recent weeks, including Mohamed Lotfy, director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, and four employees of the Egyptian Democratic Academy.
 
Between 13-15 March 13, three employees of Nazra for Feminist Studies, two employees of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and one employee of the United Group, a law firm that has published reports on torture, were asked to appear before the investigating judges for questioning. The summoned employees included finance officers from each group.
 
Previously, on 3 March, an investigating judge had interrogated the director of the United Group, the lawyer Negad al-Borei, over the alleged establishing of an unlicensed entity and over “pressuring” the president to issue an anti-torture law.
 
In February, following an investigation, government tax authorities demanded that some of the independent groups under investigation pay several million Egyptian pounds in back taxes. On 17 February, Health Ministry officials also issued an order to close the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Egypt’s leading center for such treatment, on the basis that it was performing unlicensed work. The Center has been licensed as a medical clinic since 1993 and has provided hundreds of torture victims with vital services, including counselling and legal assistance.
 

Foreign funding investigation

The first phase of the investigation into independent groups’ funding - known as case 173 of 2011 - concluded in June 2013 when a Cairo criminal court sentenced 43 foreign and Egyptian employees of five international organisations to between one and five years in prison on charges of operating unlawfully in the country and receiving foreign funding without permission.  All of the sentences were either suspended or issued in absentia, but the decision forced the closure in Egypt of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
 
Following the conclusion of the first investigation into international groups, the authorities turned their attention to local organisations. In 2014, the Social Solidarity Ministry gave local groups an ultimatum to register under an onerous associations law dating to Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. The law empowers the government to shut down any group virtually at will, freeze its assets, confiscate its property and reject nominees to its governing board. 
 
Many of the targeted groups are licensed in some fashion, including as non-profit groups, law firms or medical clinics. Some have relocated their staff outside Egypt or curtailed their operations rather than register under the Mubarak-era law. But even registered groups have not escaped investigation: The Egyptian Democratic Academy had successfully registered in January 2015, and Nazra for Feminist Studies has been registered since 2007.
 
Both the National Security branch of the Interior Ministry and the General Intelligence Service, Egypt’s external spy agency, have been gathering information on local groups’ activities for some time. Their findings were contained in a September 2011 fact-finding report, parts of which were leaked to the media, that named 37 groups under investigation, including all of those affected by the recent summonses and travel bans. 
 

Calls on the Egyptian authorities 

The Egyptian authorities should withdraw the order to close the Nadeem Center and lift all travel bans and asset freezes against human rights workers whose activities are protected by Egypt’s constitution and international law.
 
The authorities should also lift the gagging order, which prohibits media outlets from publishing anything on the case other than statements issued by the presiding judges until the investigations are complete. This violates the right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Egypt’s constitution and international law.
 
The 14 organisations expressing concern over the NGO crackdown are: 
 
Amnesty International
Article 19
Association for Women’s Rights in Development
CIVICUS
Committee to Protect Journalists
Euromed Rights 
FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Frontline Defenders 
Human Rights Watch
IFEX
International Service for Human Rights
Project on Middle East Democracy
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy
 

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