Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Confirmed assets freezes on NGOs

New assets freezes on NGOs and human rights activists are stirring domestic and international criticisms, writes Mona El-Nahhas

Al-Ahram Weekly

In what is being viewed as a crackdown on civil society organisations in Egypt, the Cairo Criminal Court on Saturday backed the freezing of the assets of five leading human rights activists and three NGOs in connection with foreign funding.

Charges of illegally receiving foreign funds in order to allegedly destabilise the country have been levelled at the NGOs involved in the case.

The activists whose assets were frozen are Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Bahieddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Mustafa Al-Hassan, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, and Abdel-Hafez Al-Tayel, head of the Egyptian Centre on the Right to Education.

The status of Eid’s and Bahgat’s NGOs has not been clarified by the court decision, but the other rights groups were subject to the assets freezes.

Legal experts argue that Saturday’s decision is not final, however, and activist Mohamed Al-Baqer said it was “a precautionary measure until investigations into the case are over”.

If the investigations show that the charges against the groups are groundless, they will be able to reclaim their assets. However, if they are subsequently found guilty, the heads of the groups could face life in prison under article 78 of the penal code, as amended in 2015.

Al-Baqer said the measures taken against the NGOs aimed to hinder their work. “The state’s dealing with NGOs in the run-up to the 2018 presidential polls is taking on a totally new dimension,” he said, adding that there was a risk that rights activists could be sent to prison and NGOs shut down.

“Measures taken against Egyptian human rights organisations, including assets freezes, travel bans and the prevention from practicing activities are attempts to make them kneel, though this will not succeed,” Nasser Amin, a leading member of the National Council of Human Rights, tweeted on Saturday.

Eid wrote on Twitter that the decision had been expected, as the case was “a political one”. He said that “we will continue. We can live under threat, but we cannot act in collusion with a police state that hates human rights, the 25 January Revolution and democracy.”

He said he would appeal the ruling against him after three months, as the law stipulates. He added that there had been no investigation conducted by the investigating judges, something which made the decision “faulty”.

In a press release after the decision, Hassan said that “independent human rights organisations in Egypt will continue to fulfil their moral duty to all Egyptian citizens who have been or are likely to be victimised, regardless of their political, religious, ethnic or sexual orientations. This will take place regardless of the asset freeze ruling and regardless of cost.”

In a statement following the ruling, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said the case had been “politically exploited” by the state to crack down on civil society organisations. It said it would continue to defend rights and freedoms and struggle to change security practices “despite the ongoing assault by the state and its institutions on all forms of civil initiative in Egypt.”

The international group Amnesty International described the court’s decision as a “shameless ploy to silence human rights activism.”

“We are calling for this unjust ruling to be quashed with immediate effect,” Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa director at the group, said in a statement. “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,” the statement said.

The London-based Human Rights Monitor said the decision was an attempt to deter activists from playing their role.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch group also criticised the decision. “The Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country’s most prominent independent human rights defenders,” Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said.

The decision was issued one day ahead of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to New York to attend meetings of the UN General Assembly on 20 September. Although Egypt’s record in human rights has been subjected to international criticisms, political analyst Hassan Nafaa did not expect the Saturday ruling to have a negative effect on Al-Sisi’s four-day visit.

“The issue of the NGOs may be tackled during Al-Sisi’s meetings with the two US presidential candidates, but the language of joint interests will have the upper hand,” Nafaa said.

The Saturday ruling came in response to a request from the two judges in charge of investigations into the foreign funding case. The two judges asked the court to approve the assets freezes they had issued in March following the reopening of the case.

The decision was made against five rights activists and eight of their family members in the light of preliminary investigations. The court backed the decree against the five activists and exempted their families from the freezes.  

The foreign funding case dates back to December 2011, when the authorities raided the offices of 17 Egyptian and western rights groups on suspicion of illegal financing. The case was divided into two sections, one focusing on international NGOs working in Egypt and the other dealing with Egyptian NGOs.

In 2012, some 43 staff members working for the international NGOs were referred to trial. Due to heavy pressure, travel bans against 13 activists having foreign nationalities were lifted. The foreign suspects then fled the country, but were tried in absentia.

In June 2013, a ruling was passed ordering the closure of five international NGOs and sentencing the 43 suspects to jail terms ranging from one to five years. The case against the Egyptian NGOs was not officially closed. However, no legal measures were taken and the issue seemed to have been shelved.

In March, former justice minister Ahmed Al-Zend started moves to reopen the case. They came in the wake of a letter signed by 16 Egyptian NGOs and submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in which they expressed concern over “the rise in human rights violations in Egypt.”

Following the reopening of the case, legal measures against several rights activists were taken, including travel bans, assets freezes, the closure of some NGO offices and interrogations of NGO directors and staff members.

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