Update [5:15 pm]: State Security Prosecution informed EIPR’s defense team that a hearing for the three recently detained staff members has been set for Monday morning, according to EIPR’s Twitter account.
Amid widespread international condemnation of the arrests of three staff members of a leading human rights group, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that it “rejects any attempt to influence the investigations the Public Prosecution is conducting with Egyptian citizens who have been charged” and stressed the “need to respect the principles of international sovereignty.”
The statement comes as rights organizations, international bodies and governments around the world have continued to criticize the crackdown against the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Just before the Foreign Ministry’s statement, an European Union spokesperson for external affairs said the EU had communicated its “significant concern” over the arrests to Egyptian authorities. “Providing space to civil society is a joint commitment enshrined in the EU – Egypt Partnership Priorities, and is stipulated in the Egyptian Constitution. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms constitutes an essential element of EU-Egypt relations,” the EU spokesperson, Peter Stano, said in a statement that was reiterated by the EU delegation to Egypt.
On Sunday, Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned” about the arrests. “We have been in regular contact with the Egyptian authorities since the arrests took place, and the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has raised the issue directly with his Egyptian counterpart. We are working closely with partners in the international community who share our concerns,” the statement said. “All human rights defenders should be able to work without fear of arrest or reprisals.”
The escalated crackdown on EIPR began last week with the arrest of its administrative manager, Mohamed Basheer, from his home on Sunday night. This was followed by the arrest of the group’s criminal justice director, Karim Ennarah, on Wednesday while on vacation in South Sinai and the arrest of the group’s executive director, Gasser Abdel Razek, from his home on Thursday evening. The State Security Prosecution ordered all three to be held in remand detention for 15 days on a number of charges, including belonging to a terrorist organization and spreading false news.
The Egyptian foreign ministry’s statement was the second within three days to address the EIPR arrests as international pressure on Egyptian authorities mounted. “No group enjoys immunity for their work in a specific field,” the ministry said. Civil society work is “guaranteed in Egypt according to the Egyptian Constitution and its laws and that work in any field must be regulated by relevant, applicable laws.”
In response, the founder and president of EIPR Hossam Bahgat (full disclosure: Bahgat is a journalist at Mada Masr currently on leave), labeled the foreign ministry’s statement as “spreading false news.” Bahgat told Mada Masr that the three detained EIPR staff members were not charged or even questioned about anything related to violating the NGO law. He added that the investigation by the National Security Agency only referred to “laughable” charges, foremost of which was them being members of a terrorist organization. Bahgat added that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has, in the past, repeatedly pointed out that the NGO law contains no jail penalties, and is now trying to justify jailing the human rights workers by citing the same law.
According to Ragia Omran, a lawyer who attended Abdel Razek’s interrogation early Friday morning, interrogators questioned Abdel Razek about his personal background, career, and human rights work experience. “Nothing came up that concerned the NGO law during the whole time we were there,” Omran, who is also a member of the National Council of Human Rights, told Mada Masr.
Countering accusations that EIPR is an illegal organization, Bahgat stressed that EIPR is “100 percent” a legal entity and is registered in the General Authority for Investment as a research and consultancy firm, has a commercial registration and a tax record, and pays all its taxes to the state, and that its workers are subject to labor and social insurance laws. Bahgat added that EIPR has been operating under Egyptian law for 18 years and has often been invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to meetings inside the ministry, to conferences chaired by the Egyptian government, and to meetings with foreign delegations or with the minister himself.
After Basheer was arrested on Sunday, Abdel Razek told Mada Masr at the time that the move was a direct response by authorities to a meeting held at the group’s office earlier this month with 13 European diplomats and ambassadors to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt. The meeting was attended by ambassadors from Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland as well as other diplomats from Canada, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and representatives from the European Commission in Cairo.
Condemnations of the arrests continued to pour in over the weekend from the countries whose officials had attended the meeting and beyond. In a statement on Friday, Germany’s Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Assistance at the Federal Foreign Office said she was “appalled” at the arrests and said, “There is obviously a direct connection between these arrests and the visit by a group of ambassadors, including the German Ambassador. I condemn this escalation in the way of dealing with Egyptian civil society in the strongest terms.”
Canada’s Foreign Ministry also criticized the arrests and said human rights workers “must be allowed to work without fear of arrest or reprisals.” Meanwhile, Sweden’s foreign minister posted on Twitter: “Deplore escalating attacks on human rights in Egypt…Human rights and fundamental freedoms are essential in EU–Egypt relations and must be respected.” Italy also called for the release of the three men as well as that of Patrick George Zaki, EIPR’s gender rights researcher who was arrested upon his return to Cairo in February from studying abroad in Bologna.
Argentina’s foreign ministry said the arrests were “incompatible with the rule of law and international standards” and echoed an earlier statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which labeled the arrests “part of a broader pattern of intimidating organizations defending human rights and of the use of counter-terrorism and national security legislation to silence dissent.” The chairperson of the UN Committee Against Torture also characterized the arrests as “very disturbing.”
In the United States, the deputy spokesperson for the Secretary of State also expressed “concern” over the arrests. “We urge the government of Egypt to release those detained and to respect fundamental freedoms of expression and association,” he wrote. This followed statements by multiple US lawmakers condemning the crackdown, including Vermont senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders who called the arrests “an outrage” and said, “The incoming administration must make it clear to Egypt and all countries that, once again, the United States will support democracy, not dictatorship.” Meanwhile, two US officials who have been shortlisted for Secretary of State in the incoming Biden administration, Delaware Senator Chris Coons and Biden campaign foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken, have also criticized the crackdown.
All three detained EIPR members were added to Case 855/2020, which includes other defendants such as lawyers Mahienour al-Massry, Amr Imam, and Mohamed al-Baqer, as well as journalists Solafa Magdy and Islam al-Koulhy, blogger Mohamed Oxygen and political science professor Hazem Hosny.
Founded in 2002, EIPR uses research, documentation, legal aid, strategic litigation and advocacy in its work on civil liberties, economic and social rights and criminal justice. Over the past several years they have worked on a number of issues in Egypt, including the prison conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing use of the death penalty, crackdowns on the LGBTQ community, foreign debt, and sectarian violence.