2011 NGO case reopened against Hossam Bahgat, Gamal Eid and others
Courtesy: Human Rights Watch

The Cairo Criminal Court is scheduled to review a ruling to freeze the assets of four defendants, including Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, pending investigations into charges that they illegally received US$1.5 million in foreign funding for their nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the state-owned Middle East News Agency reported Thursday.

The hearing is reportedly scheduled for Saturday. The names of the two other defendants have not yet been released.

The case dates back to December 2011, when 43 workers for foreign NGOs were charged with operating an organization and receiving funds from a foreign government without a license. In June 2013, all the defendants — including 17 US citizens, other foreigners and Egyptians — were sentenced from one to five years in prison, many of them in absentia. The court also ordered the closure of the implicated NGOs, including the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House.

The sentences and the closures sparked international outrage.

Workers at local NGOs who were implicated in the investigations were not sentenced in the 2013 case, and it was not clear if they might be brought to trial at a later date.

Bahgat is the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and Eid is the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. In February, both Bahgat and Eid were informed that they were banned from travel when they attempted to board flights at Cairo International Airport. The men were not notified if they were accused in any criminal cases.

Mohamed Zarea, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), told Mada Masr that two former CIHRS colleagues received phone calls on Tuesday night to summon them for questioning on Wednesday. Neither individual went to the prosecutor, due to the short notice and the fact that the summons were not delivered according to legal procedure.

“If someone called me and told me I was being summoned, I would think they were pranking me,” Zarea commented.

Zarea has not been officially notified if CIHRS is involved in the case, he said, though he has read in local media outlets that the organization is indeed being investigated.

Eid told Mada Masr that he also only found out about the case through the media, and has not been formally notified of the investigations.

“The travel ban and the media reports are all I know about this case,” Eid said.

Eid claimed that both he and his lawyer have attempted several times to find out why he was banned from travel, but to no avail. “I paid the fees for the request, but the officer told me, ‘I won’t tell you anything’,” Eid alleged.

Zarea explained that the NGO case has been a “sword over our necks” since 2011, a looming threat that the state is prepared to prosecute local NGOs at any given time. He maintained that this is a politically motivated case, and that furthermore, the mechanisms through which the investigations are being conducted violate due process.

“It is being regulated in a political manner, and the media is also playing a role,” Zarea told Mada Masr. “First a smear campaign is launched in the media, and then verdicts are issued.”

“We are not drug dealers or weapon smugglers,” Zarea continued. “We work on human rights. If the state thinks that’s a criminal offence, they should formally criminalize it — but while they’re at it, they should also withdraw from all the international agreements they are signatory to.”

Zarea claimed that state officials view the January 25, 2011 revolution as taboo, and suspect the NGOs of having been paid to instigate the uprising. “This is not an honor we are claiming,” he argued. “What actually instigated the revolution is the Interior Ministry — their violations ousted Mubarak.”

The recent wave of travel bans also impacted Hossam al-Din Ali and Ahmed Ghoneim from the Egyptian Democratic Institute, who have been banned from travel since December 2014, and Esraa Abdel Fattah, who previously worked for the same institute.

Zarea decried the fact that these travel bans — which can remain in place for a year or longer — are often issued without notifying those implicated as to why, or if they are facing criminal charges. Travel bans and trials are often announced in the media before the defendants are informed, Zarea added, pointing to the example of Abdel Fattah, who learned about her travel ban from the talk show host Ahmed Moussa. 

“Is the state embarrassed to tell them that they are banned from travel,” he asked, “so it sends Ahmed Moussa to tell them?” 

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid were indicted on charges of illegally receiving foreign funding in 2011. It has been corrected to reflect the fact that Bahgat, Eid and other unnamed defendants who work for local NGOs were not formally charged or tried in the earlier case, only workers for foreign NGOs.