Civil society leaders fight travel bans as 9-year NGO foreign funding case drags on

Thirteen human rights advocates and representatives of multiple Egyptian organizations continue to fight travel bans imposed on them in Case 173/2011, known as the NGO foreign funding case. The case, which has become a drawn-out legal drama, began almost nine years ago. None of the 13 plaintiffs appealing the travel bans has gone to trial, leaving them in a state of legal limbo. Most have also faced a freeze on their assets.

On Saturday, the 30th district of Cairo Criminal Court postponed a hearing about the travel bans until November 17. This is the second long-term postponement in their case this year.

The court, headed by Judge Mostafa al-Fekky, ordered the investigating magistrate to present official documentation of the travel ban and the reasoning behind it ahead of the next hearing. Fekky said the investigating magistrate has failed to present the documentation despite being ordered to do so during the court’s first hearing last June.

This prompted the plaintiffs to ask the court to begin adjudication rather than wait for the investigating magistrate’s reply, especially since the travel bans were issued between four and five years ago and have legally expired. Lawyers pointed out that the maximum legal period for any travel ban is two years. They asserted the prosecution’s failure to present documentation as evidence that the travel ban is both unconstitutional and illegal. The court did not address these arguments.

During yesterday’s hearing, Fekky listened to statements from the plaintiffs and arguments from lawyers Khaled Ali and Taher Abul Nasr for over three hours. Plaintiffs also submitted written evidence that none of them had been convicted of a crime since 2011. Despite this, they were all banned from travel and most of them have had their assets frozen. The plaintiffs stated that they all discovered the ban via social media posts or upon being stopped at Cairo International Airport before they could leave the country.

Most plaintiffs submitted proof that their respective organizations do not owe back taxes. Esraa Abdel Fattah told the court that, although she works as a project manager at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, she was not asked about her work but was asked by the investigating magistrate about a personal picture she had posted on Facebook during a visit to a friend in France. Abdel Fattah added that she told investigators that she personally paid for the trip, which had cost around LE 3,000. 

Lawyer and head of Arab Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid confirmed that the travel ban is based on investigations by National Security Agency officers. He added that he was informed of the travel ban in February 2016, referencing an NSA officer’s memo stating that Eid had criticized the state, and claiming that he is a member of the Kefaya movement and helps organize conferences for the movement. Eid told the judge that the movement was only active during the reign of former president Hosni Mubarak. 

The plaintiffs asked why Egyptians charged in Case 173/2011 have been forced to remain in limbo. Three rulings have already been issued for the foreign nationals involved in the same case, the latest being an acquittal in December 2018. Mohamed Zaree, head of the Egypt office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, who is both a lawyer and a plaintiff in the case, asked the court to order the investigating magistrate to try him, and to imprison him if found guilty, adding that the plaintiffs are being subjected to a smear campaign by the media. 

The judge’s questions to the plaintiffs were limited to clarifying which organization every individual belongs to, whether or not the organization received foreign funding, and whether the institution paid their taxes.

The list of plaintiffs also includes: head of Nazra for Feminist Studies, Mozn Hassan; representative of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hossam Bahgat; human rights lawyer, Azza Soliman; lawyer, Yasser Abdel Gawad; Alaa Eddin Abdel Tawab; lawyers and members of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, Nasser Amin and Hoda Abdel Wahab; lawyer and member of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, Ahmed Ragheb; and activists and members of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, Esraa Abdel Fattah, Hossam Eddin Aly and Ahmed Ghoneim.

The hearing, which was scheduled to start at 10 am, began nearly five hours later at 2:40 pm. Fekky, the head judge, made sure to meet with all the journalists and photographers in the courtroom and to obtain copies of their identification cards before beginning. He met with a six-person delegation from the European Union in the deliberation room attached to the court, as well as a representative from the United States embassy, in the presence of a police lieutenant colonel. During these meetings, the judge inquired as to why the foreign officials were following the case, and which of the plaintiffs they were specifically concerned with. One of the officials told Mada Masr that they are concerned with all of the plaintiffs. 

According to an EU representative, the judge asked the delegation for their IDs and phone numbers, as well as their exact organizational positions. When the members of the delegation expressed their surprise at his line of questioning, he replied that only individuals with a permit from the court are allowed to attend hearings.

None of the Egyptian defendants in Case 173/2011 have been given a trial since investigations began in 2011. The saga began in December of that year, when authorities stormed the headquarters of 17 civil society organizations. The case was then split into two parts, one concerning foreign organizations operating in Egypt, and another concerning local organizations. 

The first ruling in the “foreigners” part of the case was on June 4, 2013, when 32 defendants were given sentences ranging from two to five years in prison, while 11 others were handed a suspended sentence of one year in prison. The organizations involved were the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. All local branches were closed and all the organizations’ documents and assets were confiscated. The Cairo Criminal Court charged the organizations’ employees with receiving money from foreign sources “with the intention of harming national interests or threatening the state’s sovereignty” and running unlicensed organizations. 

The Court of Cassation, headed by Judge Abdel Moez Ibrahim, ordered a retrial of the foreign case on April 18, 2018. Ibrahim also ordered that the defendants, 17 of whom had already left the country, be released. The travel ban that was issued against them was lifted in exchange for bail of LE 2 million. On December 20, 2018, the same district court that is currently addressing the travel ban acquitted all 43 defendants on all charges and overturned the travel ban against them.

Taher Abu al-Nasr, lawyer for some of the plaintiffs in the travel ban case, sees the deliberate delay in adjudication as an indication of a desire to “continue the state of indecisiveness towards the case that began in 2011.” He explained to Mada Masr that the acquittal for foreigners issued in December 2018 does not mean that the same fate awaits the Egyptian defendants. He added that there has not been any indication of a change in how authorities are dealing with civil society and human rights activists.

A government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the position of the judiciary and executive authorities towards the case is unclear. The source told Mada Masr that there is disagreement between parallel, sovereign state bodies on the fate of the remaining defendants in Case 173/2011. After the barrage of bad press Egypt received over the case, some government agencies have concluded it would be best to permanently close this “file” by lifting the travel ban and releasing the assets of anyone involved in the case, the source said. But other agencies believe that dropping the case would be seen as a softening of the state’s strong-armed stance towards any challenge to its authority. 

Meanwhile, Western diplomatic sources in Cairo have told Mada Masr over the last few months that high-ranking diplomats have been diligent in bringing up the case with their Egyptian counterparts. One Western diplomat said, however, that European governments are prioritizing Egypt’s role in curbing migration to Europe over domestic human rights concerns. The source added that the Trump administration is also uninterested in human rights cases, saying: “Actually, there isn’t any real pressure on the Egyptian regime at all.”


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