Fourteen global human rights groups today urged Egypt to halt a renewed crackdown on civil society and rights defenders. The demand came as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced a cabinet reshuffle today, Foreign Policy notes, appointing new officials to 10 posts, including justice minister, finance minister, investment minister, labor minister, tourism minister, and others.
“NGOs are currently suffering the worst conditions they have faced since the 1980s,” said Mahmoud Farouk, the head of the Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies. “Since 2011, numerous NGOs have been closed, including 60 local and a number of international ones. A small percentage is present currently, and these suffer from ongoing violations and restrictions.”
“NGOs that work in development and human rights are the ones struggling the most in Egypt. However, organisations focused on education are also facing restrictions and closure orders,” he told Daily News Egypt.
In recent weeks, the Egyptian authorities have summoned human rights workers for questioning, banned them from travel and attempted to freeze their personal funds and family assets, steps that indicate a five-year-old investigation into the funding and registration of independent human rights groups could soon result in criminal charges, the rights groups said:
On March 22, 2016, Mozn Hassan, executive 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 on March 29, 2016.
On March 19, a Cairo criminal court heard a request from the investigating judges to freeze the assets of Hossam Bahgat (right), 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…..Courts, prosecutors and security agencies have barred at least 10 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 March 13 and 15, 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 March 3, an investigating judge had interrogated the director of the United Group, the lawyer Negad al-Borei, on the allegation of establishing an unlicensed entity and “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 February 17, Health Ministry officials also issued an order to close the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture……
“Human rights abuses and political repression are driving extremism and terrorism, which are in turn undermining the economy and prospects for a meaningful recovery,” said Michele Dunne, a Middle East scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The European Parliament passed a stinging resolution calling the death of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni (right) a “chilling message” stemming from the “climate of near-total impunity” surrounding the Egyptian security forces, the New York Times adds:
The inner circle surrounding Mr. Sisi is notoriously opaque, but many analysts say they believe he operates as first among equals, a leader whose power is circumscribed by some fiercely autonomous elements of the Egyptian security services…. The investigation into Mr. Regeni’s death could hinge on an Italian autopsy report, not yet released, which could answer whether he was tortured over an extended period, which would point to detention by a state security agency.
“There are plenty of signs of disorder in the security apparatus,” said Carnegie’s Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “After 2011, they were unified for a time against the Muslim Brotherhood. But now they are squabbling among themselves again.”
“This is not just about Regeni,” Ms. Dunne said. “There’s a sense the Egyptians are determined to crush a human rights community that has been there for 30 years. And if they close them down, nobody will know what’s going on.”
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 (right) sentenced 43 foreign and Egyptian employees of five international organizations to between one and five years in prison, on charges of operating unlawfully in the country and receiving foreign funding without permission, the fourteen international NGOs add:
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.
The three investigating judges resumed their work in 2014, when 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. Still, 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 organizations expressing concern are:
Association for Women’s Rights in Development
Committee to Protect Journalists
Human Rights Watch
International Federation for Human Rights
International Service for Human Rights
World Organisation Against Torture
Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy