The existence of most prominent human rights organizations existence in Egypt has become at risk after the ruling of the Cairo criminal court on September 17 to freeze the assets of three groups, as well as the personal funds of five human rights defenders, as part of an investigation into their foreign funding, according to Human Rights Watch .
The ruling places the frozen assets under government custodianship, which means that the organizations and individuals can no longer make independent decisions about the seized money.
In a new report released by Human Right Watch titled:”Ruling Risks Eradicating Human Rights Work”, Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director said, “Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country’s most prominent independent human rights defenders.”
She added, “Egypt’s international partners should not be fooled by repression cloaked in the guise of legalistic procedure.”
The last ruling targeted the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and the Egyptian Center on the Right to Education.
Moreover, it included the personal assets of their directors, and those of Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, and Hossam Bahgat, the founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. It was not immediately clear how the ruling would affect the two groups.
At an earlier time, a judge also froze the assets of another group, al-Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies on June 2016.
According to Egyptian activists, these orders are provisional and can become final only after a criminal trial. At that point, the government could take over the groups and close them down.
In fact, the last ruling is one of sides of a series of a repressive case issued against independent Egyptian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) known as Case 173 of 2011, which alleges that as many as 37 NGOs have illegally received foreign funding.
“Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should order the Justice Ministry to halt its investigation into human rights groups,” said the HRW.
The report calls 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 end its targeting of legitimate independent human rights work.
Since Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian authorities have launched massive crackdown against political opposition and human rights organizations.
In 2014, Al-Sisi amended an article of the penal code which states that workers at NGO can receive a 25-year sentence if a judge determines that they received foreign funding for “pursuing acts harmful to national interests or destabilizing general peace or the country’s independence and its unity, or committing hostile acts against Egypt or harming security and public order.”
The amendment is wide open as it does not define exactly such acts.
Egypt’s court banned 12 NGO directors, founders, and staff members from leaving Egypt, including from some of these organizations. Activists said the travel bans are probably a prelude to the filing of criminal charges against them.
In December 2014, the first travel ban was issued against Esraa Abd al-Fattah, director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy. Followed by Nasser Amin, a member of the government-funded National Council for Human Rights, has also been banned from travel.
The investigation into the funding of local and foreign organizations started under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) rule in July 2011.
In 2013, a criminal trial that concluded handed down sentences of between one and five years to 43 employees of five foreign NGOs and ordered the organizations to close.
In 2014, the Justice Ministry requested the formation of a new panel of three investigative judges chosen by the Cairo Court of Appeals.
The panel began looking into the work and finances of independent Egyptian NGOs when the Social Solidarity Ministry gave groups an ultimatum to register under an onerous associations law dating to Mubarak’s presidency.
Authorities have also place more crackdown and pressures on human rights activists. Negad al-Borai- human rights lawyer involved in drafting an anti-torture law, was interrogated at least six times in April 2015.
Al-Borai was investigated for illegal funding, establishing an unlicensed entity, and spreading false information.
Moreover, security officers and local government officials attempted to shut down in February 2016 the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, claiming that the center had violated the terms of its license, but providing no details.
HRW report said, “The evidence used by the investigative judges in Case 173 appears to be based mostly on reports by the National Security Agency of the Interior Ministry. These reports claim the NGOs received funds for activities that harm national security.”
On September 8, state owned media that the cabinet had approved and sent for court review a new draft law on associations, which had been prepared without a public discussion.
Independent groups criticized the draft law, saying that it would prevent human rights groups from legalizing their status and ban activists who have received prison sentences from forming their own NGOs.
In fact, “the law would place NGO activities and foreign funding under the supervision of a government committee that includes security agency officials and would require groups to obtain Social Solidarity Ministry approval before cooperating with foreign entities,”according to teh report.
HRW called Egypt to withdraw the current draft law, wait for parliament to reconvene, and consider a 2013 proposal prepared under former Minister of Social Solidarity Ahmed al-Borai, which activists said was the most democratic draft yet prepared.
Human Rights Watch said,”UN Human Rights Council and member states should condemn the current crackdown on civil society members and demand concrete measures to improve respect for human rights, including the withdrawal of the current draft law on associations.”
According to Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights “Egypt, as a state party, to ensure freedom of association and remove any unlawful restrictions.” In addition, Human Rights Council resolution 22/6 on protecting human rights defenders calls upon states to ensure “that no law should criminalize or delegitimize activities in defense of human rights on account of the origin of funding thereto.”
Lama Fakih said, “Egypt’s international partners and should speak up now to prevent the disappearance of independent human rights groups,” she added, “Members of the UN Human Rights Council should live up to their commitment to defend human rights defenders by demanding reforms from President al-Sisi and the Egyptian government.”