Egypt faces new human rights criticism over NGO cases

Sunday 25/09/2016
Egyptian human rights activist Hossam Bahgat (C)

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.