Growing int’l criticism of Egypt after asset freezes against human rights defenders and NGOs

In the past few days, a host of statements have been issued by the United Nations, America’s State Department, and the European Union, along with several international human rights organizations, against the court-ordered asset freezes which were issued on Saturday against five prominent Egyptian human rights defenders and three rights NGOs.

The North Cairo Criminal Court’s decision affects Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) founder and journalist Hossam Bahgat, Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) head Gamal Eid, the Egyptian Center for Right to Education and its head Abdel Hafiz Tayel, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and its head Bahey Eddin Hassan, and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and its manager Mostafa al-Hassan.

The court rejected the prosecution’s request to freeze the assets of the human rights defenders’ family members.

The legal status of ANHRI and EIPR are unknown after the asset freeze of their founders, Eid and Bahgat respectively.

The asset freeze comes in the context of case 173, in which 17 rights defenders from 12 organizations face charges of receiving foreign funding to harm national security and founding organizations of an international nature without permits. Known as the 173 foreign funding case, it was opened in 2011 and reopened again this year.

In response to the judicial ruling, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a statement on Tuesday. The statement read, “We are particularly concerned that this decision by the Court now opens the way for further criminal proceedings against the defendants who, if found guilty, could be sentenced to life in prison – which amount to 25 years of detention under Egyptian laws.”

The UN statement went on to express concern regarding reports that “twelve human rights defenders, including Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, continue to be subject to travel bans issued last February in connection with ongoing investigations.”

The OHCHR pointed out: “However, we note and welcome the fact that the Criminal Court did not take the further extreme step of upholding freezes on the assets of family members of the defendants as had been previously recommended by a panel of three judges chosen by the Cairo Court of Appeals at the request of the Ministry of Justice.”

Also on Tuesday, the New York-based international rights watch dog, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement arguing that Saturday’s court ruling risks eradicating human rights work in Egypt.

“Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country’s most prominent independent human rights defenders,” the HRW statement read before going on to warn that “Egypt’s international partners should not be fooled by repression cloaked in the guise of legalistic procedure.”

HRW called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to order the Ministry of Justice to halt its investigations into human rights groups. HRW went on to add that “the Egyptian government should abide by its March 2015 pledge at the United Nations Human Rights Council ‘to respect the free exercise of the associations defending human rights’” and to end its targeting of legitimate independent human rights work.

The Toronto-based International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) issued a related statement on Monday, in which it expressed that it “unequivocally condemns” these latest asset freezes. The statement maintains that the “re-activation of case 173 and ongoing use of the Mubarak era Law 84 are part of a larger crackdown targeting not only human rights defenders, but also the media, trade unions, and peaceful protesters.”

IFEX also warned that these asset freezes could subsequently result in criminal charges against the aforementioned rights defenders and NGOs.

“We firmly believe that the current push against Egyptian civil society is not only unconstitutional” in light of Constitutional Article 75, “but also fundamentally misguided,” the IFEX statement read. It added that “The work of civil society groups contributes to a healthy, vibrant political climate that allows for open and critical debate of important social issues where all Egyptian citizens can be freely heard.”

IFEX thus calls on the Egyptian state to drop the order to freeze the assets of these rights groups and activists, to immediately lift the travel bans imposed on Bahgat and Eid, to review those domestic laws which conflict with the safeguards stipulated in Egypt’s 2014 Constitution, as well as to halt “all forms of judicial harassment perpetrated against human rights defenders and members of civil society.”

As for the Geneva-based International Service for Human Rights (ISHR,) it issued a statement on Monday in solidarity with Egypt’s rights activists and NGOs mentioning that “the prosecution of these individuals and organizations and the freezing of their assets in connection with their vital and legitimate human rights work is both illegal and ill-advised.”

This statement issued by ISHR indicated that such actions targeting rights activists and NGOs represents a violation of the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Egypt is a state party.

ISHR also called on Egypt’s ruling authorities to reverse its legal actions against the defendants and NGOs adding that “these kinds of prosecutions are absolutely inimical to Egypt’s national interest and future peace and prosperity.”

ISHR’s statement added that: “a state that systematically represses human rights defenders and other civil society actors is certainly not worthy of a seat at the UN’s human rights high-table” in reference to Egypt’s seat on the UN Human Rights Council. ISHR’s statement concluded by urging states “to send this message to Egypt loudly and clearly.”

As for the US Department of State, it issued a statement on Sunday announcing that it is “troubled” by these asset freezes. It added that “this decision comes against a wider backdrop of closing space for Egyptian civil society. Such restrictions on the space for civil society activity will produce neither stability nor security. We urge the Government of Egypt to lift these asset freezes, take all legally available measures to end the investigations into human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and ease restrictions on association and expression so that these and other NGOs can operate freely.”

The European Union’s External Action Service issued a critical statement on Saturday regarding the mistreatment of independent Egyptian civil society actors — particularly human rights organizations and defenders — who are coming under increased pressure from the state. The EU statement added that such actions are not in line with either Egypt’s Constitution, or the legal safeguards enshrined in the EU-Egypt Association Agreement, “which is the basis for our partnership.”

Amnesty International also issued a statement on Saturday entitled “Asset freeze is a shameless ploy to silence human rights activism.”

According to Amnesty, “The Egyptian authorities are using this case as a way to crush the country’s human rights movement. Meanwhile, the government’s brutal crackdown on dissent shows no sign of stopping, with enforced disappearances and torture becoming a matter of state policy. Egypt needs these critical voices more than ever.”

Amnesty’s statement concluded: “We are calling for this unjust ruling to be quashed with immediate effect, and for the Egyptian authorities to cease their harassment of these human rights defenders and members of their families. This is a blatant misuse of the criminal justice system to prevent people speaking out about the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country.”


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