Egypt faces new human rights criticism over NGO cases
CAIRO - Cairo looks set for a new confrontation with rights groups after an Egyptian court upheld a freeze on the assets of five human rights activists and three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the latest development of a case that dates to 2011 involving the alleged receipt of foreign funds without government authorisation.
The court upheld an administrative order issued in February freezing the assets of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Centre on the Right to Education. Activists Hossam Bahgat, Gamal Eid, Bahey Eldin Hassan, Mustafa el-Hassan and Abdel Hafiz Tayel had their personal assets frozen. The court also ordered the lifting of a freeze on the assets of the activists’ family members.
Eid is the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information; Baghgat is founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and Hassan is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. The Hisham Mubarak Law Centre is led by Hassan and the Egyptian Centre on the Right to Education is led by Tayel.
“The situation now represents a serious threat to those working for human rights groups in Egypt, particularly as other measures have also been taken against those involved in this case including travel bans,” Tayel said.
“The latest decision is consistent with the work that was started by the regime three years ago in its attempt to put an end to the work of civil society organisations in the country that began with targeting civil society and charity organisations affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood organisation,” he added.
In an official statement following the court decision, the Egyptian Centre on the Right to Education pledged to carry on efforts to “change security practices against human rights… despite the ongoing assault by the state and its institutions on all forms of civil organisations and initiatives in Egypt”.
Hassan pledged to continue to promote human rights. “The independent human rights organisations in Egypt will continue to fulfil their moral duty to all Egyptian citizens, regardless of their political, religious, ethnic or sexual orientation, regardless of the upcoming asset freeze, and regardless of the cost,” he said in a statement.
As many as 37 NGOs face charges of illegally receiving foreign funds in a landmark case that was launched after Egypt’s 2011 revolution, known as Case 173 of 2011. According to Egypt’s penal code, NGO workers found guilty of illegally receiving foreign funds can be sentenced to 25 years in prison. Travel bans have been issued against at least 12 NGO directors, including Tayel. Activists warned that could be the prelude to the filing of criminal charges.
Cairo has faced increasing international criticism for its human rights record with Human Rights Watch (HRW) warning that the decision to freeze assets could “eradicate” human rights in Egypt. “Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country’s most prominent independent human rights defenders,” warned HRW deputy Middle East and North Africa Director Lama Fakih.
“Egypt’s international partners should not be fooled by repression cloaked in the guise of legalistic procedure,” she added.
Cairo University political science Professor Hassan Nafaa said Cairo was seeking to exploit “loopholes” to restrict the work of human rights groups.
“This has focused on the issue of foreign funding received by these organisations,” he said but denied this meant that the court case was politicised. “The law is simply being decisively implemented,” he said.
In an interview with US Public Broadcasting Service host Charlie Rose against the backdrop of the UN General Assembly, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sought to play down criticisms over Egypt’s human rights record, including the case over foreign funding.
“There is a misunderstanding regarding this case, which is giving a negative impression about Egypt,” he said.
Sisi stressed that more than 4,000 NGOs operate in Egypt and provide valuable services to society. He also said there have been some issues due to a certain “faction” in Egypt that is opposing the government’s push for security and stability, routinely resorting to violence.