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Charges dropped against 20 NGOs yet ‘serious’ human rights orgs still targeted in long-running case

An investigative judge in a long-running case targeting non-governmental organizations in Egypt accused of illegally receiving foreign funding announced on Saturday that investigations into 20 NGOs have ended and no criminal cases will be pursued.

Cairo Appeals Court judge Ali Mokhtar said in a statement that all of the asset freezes and travel bans associated with the 20 NGOs will be dropped.

The case, known as Case 173/2011, dates back to December 2011, when authorities stormed the headquarters of 17 foreign and local civil society organizations. The case was then split into two parts, one concerning foreign organizations operating in Egypt, and another concerning local ones. In June 2013, 43 defendants — including Egyptian, American and European nationals — working for foreign organizations were handed prison sentences ranging from one to five years. A retrial was ordered in April 2018 and all 42 defendants were acquitted in December 2018. However, the case targeting local NGOs continued, with the Public Prosecution assigning it to an investigative judge in March 2016. This was followed by asset freezes and travel bans being handed down against numerous civil society workers. The case has not been referred to criminal trial and the exact number of local groups implicated is unknown.

Saturday’s ruling is another sign of movement in Egypt’s civil society landscape after an international outcry in the wake of the arrests of three senior staff of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in mid-November eventually led to their release and prompted the long-delayed issue of the executive regulations for an amended version of the NGO law.

However, a number of lawyers and civil society workers downplayed the significance of Saturday’s ruling, telling Mada Masr that the decision did not apply to the more “serious” organizations working in the contentious field of human rights.

Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, described the ruling as a way to “get around the crisis of the state’s treatment of NGOs since 2011,” pointing out that all the organizations included in Saturday’s decision pursue their activities normally without harassment and are able to register with the Social Solidarity Ministry.

The 20 organizations that were acquitted on Saturday are mostly charitable and development NGOs, as well as several others closer to the state, such as the Maat Foundation for Peace, Development and Human Rights, and the Future Generation Foundation that was founded by Gamal Mubarak and a number of businessmen in the late 90s.

Hossam Bahgat, the founder and acting director of EIPR, who has been banned from travel and has had his assets frozen since 2016, told Mada Masr that Saturday’s ruling does not necessarily indicate any progress in Case 173 since it was assigned to an investigative judge four years ago. According to Bahgat (who is also a journalist on leave from Mada Masr), the decision does not make clear whether authorities eventually plan to close the entire NGO case — as happened with the acquittals of foreign organizations in 2018 — or whether investigations into the independent rights organizations remaining in the case will be resumed.

Other civil society workers who have been banned from travel and had their assets frozen in relation to the case echoed this sentiment, telling Mada Masr on condition of anonymity that the ruling does not represent a change in direction in how the state deals with “serious” rights organizations, such as Al-Nadeem Center, Nazra for Feminist Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and Hisham Mubarak Law Center, whose current or former senior members have all faced severe legal harassment over the past several years in relation to the case.

Last year, 13 human rights advocates and representatives of NGOs targeted in Case 173 fought to overturn their travel bans in court. At trial, lawyers pointed out that the maximum legal period for any travel ban is two years and asserted the prosecution’s failure to present documentation as evidence that the travel ban is both unconstitutional and illegal. The Cairo Criminal Court nevertheless ruled to uphold the travel bans this past July.

The list of plaintiffs included: EIPR’s Bahgat; Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information; Mohamed Zaree, head of the Egypt office of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Mozn Hassan, head of Nazra for Feminist Studies; 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 Abd El Fattah, Hossam Eddin Aly and Ahmed Ghoneim.

The crackdown on civil society in Egypt was thrust back into the global spotlight in mid-November, when authorities arrested three senior staff of EIPR, the country’s leading human rights organization, and held them in remand detention on terrorism charges. The arrests immediately sparked international condemnation, with criticism coming from rights organizations, international bodies — such as the United Nations — celebrities, and governments around the world. The global outcry eventually led to their release from prison on Thursday.

In a statement on Saturday, EIPR said it was “thankful to all who took part in a solidarity campaign within and outside Egypt” that helped and facilitated the release of the group’s executive director Gasser Abdel Razek, criminal justice unit director Karim Ennarah, and administrative director Mohamed Basheer.

“EIPR believes that this worldwide support presented a good example of what could be achieved despite the severely shrunken space for civil society at large and the gagging of all professional and pro-democracy voices in Egypt’s mainstream media,” the group said.

On Sunday, the third circuit terrorism court ruled to uphold the Public Prosecution’s order to temporarily freeze all personal assets and property of Abdel Razek, Ennarah, and Basheer, according to EIPR. The assets of EIPR as an entity do not appear to be covered by the freeze order. The court ruled on the matter without hearing any oral arguments or allowing defense lawyers to read the order.

EIPR’s gender rights researcher, Patrick George Zaki, has been imprisoned in remand detention since February, when he was arrested upon his arrival to Cairo from Italy where he was studying abroad. A court is scheduled to rule on Sunday whether to again renew Zaki’s remand detention for 45 days.

“What EIPR has been facing is part of a crackdown on civil society organizations in Egypt,” the group said in its Saturday statement. “The organization believes that the price paid by the just-released staff members is but a small example of the untold suffering of thousands of detainees whose lives are almost frozen and wasted in lengthy pretrial detentions, or serving sentences issued under constitutionally contested laws.”

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