Judge imposes gag order on NGO foreign funding case

Investigating Judge Hesham Abdel Meguid issued a gag order on the recently reopened case against local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) accused of unlawfully accepting foreign funds, the judge announced Monday evening.

The gag order prohibits any type of media outlet from publishing anything on the case other than statements issued by the presiding judges until investigations are complete.

Defendants include the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Gamal Eid, and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hossam Bahgat, who are accused of illegally receiving US$1.5 million in foreign funding for their organizations, according to local media reports.

The gag order was issued shortly after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Prime Minister Sherif Ismail, other members of the Cabinet, the head of General Intelligence and the presidential adviser on national security affairs, the privately owned newspaper Al-Shorouk reported Monday. In the meeting, Sisi stressed the importance of improving Egypt’s image abroad, his spokesperson Alaa Youssef said.

Over the weekend Egypt had a terse exchange with the United States over the reopening of the NGO case. On Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he was concerned about the deteriorating condition of human rights in Egypt. Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry responded on Saturday by saying that Egypt does not accept the guardianship of foreign countries, arguing that human rights are a sovereign matter.

Shoukry went on to say that there are more than 40,000 organizations in Egypt working on human rights, and the government is committed to helping them serve their role in civil society. However, the state must ensure that all funds received by such groups are used in the right manner, Shoukry maintained, and not channeled to anyone engaged in practices that could harm the nation.

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.

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

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