Egypt freezes assets of human rights defenders and NGOs
An Egyptian court froze assets of five prominent human rights defenders and three non-governmental organisations on Saturday, provoking fears of an intensified crackdown on civil society. They had been under renewed investigation for allegedly receiving foreign funds in a case that stretches back to 2011 and had caused a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Cairo.
European Union External Action Service criticised the decision in a statement.
"The increased pressure on independent Egyptian civil society, in particular human rights organisations and defenders, is not in line with Egypt's commitments to promote and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms as guaranteed by its Constitution," the EU diplomatic service said.
Rights groups quickly denounced the decision, with Amnesty International calling it "a shameless ploy to silence human rights activism".
The rights activists are Hossam Bahgat, who founded the leading Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights NGO, Gamal Eid, Bahey el-Din Hassan, Mostafa al-Hassan and Abdel Hafez al-Tayel. The NGOs are Bahey el-Din Hassan's Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Mostafa al-Hassan's Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and the Egyptian Centre for the Right to Education.
The court's decision is a "reprehensible blow to Egypt's human rights movement", the London-based Amnesty said in a statement.
"These individuals may subsequently face prosecution and prison terms of up to life, equivalent to 25 years in Egypt."
New York-based Human Rights Watch also criticised the decision.
Egypt four years after the January uprising
After the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and the coup against his successor, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, many Egyptians were relieved and delighted that Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was at the helm. Civil society, however, has paid a high price. By Diana Hodali
Sunday, 25 January marked the fourth anniversary of the start of protests against the long-ruling authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. Over 800 people died during the 2011 rebellion. Four years on, there were no commemoration ceremonies for the dead on the day of the anniversary. Quite the opposite: the government completely cordoned off Tahrir Square (see above) and banned all demonstrations – for security reasons, it said.
This photo, which was taken on the weekend of the fourth anniversary of the revolution, will forever be associated with this anniversary. It shows Shaima Al-Sabbagh being carried away from the scene of her shooting. She and others were on their way to Tahrir Square to commemorate those killed in the 2011 uprising when she was shot from behind. Demonstrators blame the police; the Ministry of the Interior issued no details except to say that an unnamed 'armed person' was to blame.
Muslim brotherhood supporters being led away: freedom of expression and assembly, for which the protest movement fought, have also fallen victim to rigid suppression. A controversial law on demonstrations forbids spontaneous rallies. Civil society activists who belong to the generation that led the revolution in 2011 and members of the Muslim Brotherhood alike have been arrested and imprisoned on a massive scale.
The hopes raised by the revolution in 2011 were immense. The overthrow of Mubarak led to Egypt's first free elections and a new constitution. Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president. Often heavy handed and sometimes autocratic, he provoked mass protests. In 2013, he was ousted by army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who was then elected president.
Many Egyptians hope that President Sisi will lead them out of the economic crisis and restore security. However, many human rights activists fear that his election will result in the end of democracy and a return to dictatorship in Egypt.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood behind bars: even before his election, Sisi had the Muslim Brotherhood placed on the list of terrorist organisations. In March, a court in Al-Minja sentenced 529 supporters of the organisation to death. At a subsequent trial in April, the judges handed down a further 683 death sentences. Most were later commuted to life sentences; some cases are being retried.
General crackdown: by putting pressure on homosexuals and atheists, the authorities are seeking to demonstrate their religious morals and credentials. Moreover, hundreds of activists are currently behind bars. Many lawyers and journalists have also been arrested without charges and often for no discernible reason. Such is the plight of the journalists pictured here, who work for the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera.
Egyptian military police search the offices of an NGO in Cairo. President Sisi has enacted a number of laws to further weaken civil society. In particular, he has tightened criminal law. Accordingly, organisations can be charged if they receive funding from abroad and thereby harm the interests of the Egyptian state. During the Mubarak era, similar laws gave the government carte blanche to silence undesirable NGOs.
Hosni Mubarak and his sons in court: Late last year, an Egyptian court decided to drop charges against the former president over the killing of hundreds of demonstrators during the Tahrir Square revolt in January 2011. The sons of the deposed Egyptian president, Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, were released from prison on the day after the fourth anniversary of the uprising, pending their retrial on corruption charges.
"Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country's most prominent independent human rights defenders," it quoted its Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson as saying in a statement.
In 2011, Egypt provoked international condemnation when it raided Egyptian and Western NGOs in Cairo on suspicion of illegal financing, including the US National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Police also sought to arrest NGO staff members at the time, forcing 13 foreigners including six Americans to take refuge at the US embassy in Cairo until the Egyptian authorities relented and allowed them to leave Egypt.
Saturday's decision came ahead of a visit by President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, a former army chief whose government is accused by rights groups of violations, to New York for United Nations General Assembly on 20 September.
The initial probe into foreign funding had been launched amid a crackdown against civil society groups following the 18-day uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 and left the military in charge. Officials and security services aired suspicions that the civil society groups were plotting against the country, at a time of heightened suspicion in Egypt against Western countries.
Forty-three Egyptian and foreign NGO staff were subsequently placed on trial and handed jail terms of up to five years in 2013 for working illegally. Most of the foreigners were tried in absentia. A month later, the military led by Sisi overthrew the unpopular Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, unleashing a crackdown on the Islamist opposition as well as rights activists.
Successive governments since 2011 have said that financing for civil society groups should be streamlined and more transparent, but have been accused of trying to control civil society funding. Some rights NGOs have complained that they work in a legal grey zone, sometimes not receiving the relevant permits to operate which may lead to their closure at the authorities' whim. (AFP)
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