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Government source: Authorities inclined to close long-running case targeting NGOs yet travel bans may remain

Human rights lawyer Negad al-Borai and human rights activist and head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid were questioned by a judge on Tuesday in a long-running case targeting non-governmental organizations accused of receiving foreign funding with the intention of harming national security.

A government source says the new developments come as the high-profile case may be drawing to a close, but that travel bans preventing some defendants in the case from leaving Egypt could remain in place and that some could face new charges related to the financing of civil society groups. At least 13 high-profile civil society figures have been subject to travel bans and asset freezes in the case for around five years.

Tuesday’s interrogation sessions marked the first time Borai and Eid were summoned for questioning in the case, which began nearly a decade ago. Eid was questioned for three hours, according to a statement by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), which criticized the case for a lack of evidence and conflicting information. The organization said that Eid’s lawyers reviewed the case file, which was around 2,000 pages long and was largely comprised of excerpts of the organization’s legal and research publications on issues including prolonged remand detention, the detention of journalists and poor prison conditions, that were alleged by a national security officer named Mahmoud Ali Mahmoud to have been produced in order to stir up public opinion and bring down the state. The statement also said the file included “false” allegations by Mahmoud that ANHRI received funding from Human Rights Watch and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, while information on Eid’s finances provided to the courts in his defense was missing from the file. ANHRI also noted “conflicting” information in the case file, with claims in one instance that the organization was established in 1995 and in another in 2004, as well as differing accounts of whether or not the group had filed its taxes.

Eid’s questioning will continue on August 1. In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Eid said that “the goal of this case is to exact revenge against independent institutions, and there is no place for law in it.”

Meanwhile, Borai told Mada Masr that during the three hours of questioning on Tuesday, he was primarily asked about accusations against him in a National Security Agency report concerning broadcasting false statements, which he denied. He was also asked whether he had received foreign funding, to which he responded that his firm only received legal fees, and questioned about his tax status. Borai told the judge that tax officials have failed to review their tax returns since 2005, despite his repeated requests.

Borai told Mada Masr that the case file against him did not contain any material evidence and was based entirely on the “narrative reports” of a National Security Agency officer. “My opinion as a lawyer — rather than as a defendant — is that this report will not stand up in court against a legal defense.”

However, Borai also said that the interrogation session was “reassuring,” adding that the judge said that investigations in the case will conclude in two weeks.

The case, which has moved at a glacial pace for years, also saw another defendant, lawyer and head of the Center for Egyptian Womens’ Legal Assistance Azza Soliman, summoned for questioning earlier this month.

During an hour of questioning on July 15, Soliman was asked whether she received foreign funding to avoid oversight by the Social Solidarity Ministry, an accusation she denied, she told Mada Masr. She was also asked whether she had made statements or held conferences to harm Egypt’s reputation, as well as about her tax status. Soliman expressed a similar sentiment to Borai, that “the interrogation was reassuring,” adding that she got the impression that the case could be coming to a close. “I am more comfortable now that there is progress in the case, rather than having it pending in the background,” she said.

Meanwhile, a government source involved with the case who spoke to Mada Mar on condition of anonymity said various state institutions concerned with the case are inclined to “close this file.” The investigation, Case 173/2011, has been criticized by international human rights organizations and the United Nations as a crackdown on civil society. The source said that there is a consensus within Egypt’s political and security institutions that the case should be brought to an end, and that the matter was “awaiting a political decision.”

The source also warned that an end to the case would not necessarily mean an end to legal measures against the civil society workers targeted in it. “Closing the case is one thing, but these people having their travel bans lifted or not having other charges lodged against them is another thing entirely,” the source said.

Since 2016, 13 human rights advocates and civil society workers in the case have been banned from travel and have had their assets frozen. They lost a 2019 appeal against the asset freezes and travel bans, despite lawyers pointing out that travel bans cannot legally be imposed for over two years, and that in the absence of documented evidence from the prosecution the travel ban is both unconstitutional and illegal.

The government source said that a number of the civil society workers will not have their travel bans lifted even if they are completely cleared of all charges in the case, and that some will likely face new charges related to their finances. “The authorities have evidence of legal violations in the financial transactions of several organizations supervised by those named in Case 173,” the source said.

The government source told Mada Masr that the state would likely move to bring the case to an end “before September, and before the United Nations General Assembly convenes in the third week of the month, in conjunction with the state’s intention to launch a new human rights strategy.” The new human rights strategy was originally scheduled for launch in the third week of June, the source said, only to be postponed to the end of July, before being postponed once again.

However, a second government source told Mada Masr on condition of anonymity that the NGO foreign funding case and the new human rights strategy are being handled separately since it is “unclear whether the human rights strategy will be launched at all.”

State-aligned organizations began in April to discuss a new human rights strategy, with Major General Khaled Okasha of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies think tank drawing out a multi-point plan in a televised speech to curtail the use of remand detention, and make greater use of presidential pardons for prisoners eligible for early release.

Several high-profile political detainees, some of whom had been held in remand for long past the two-year legal limit, were released from the National Security Agency’s Abdeen headquarters over Eid al-Adha. A source from within Parliament previously told Mada Masr that the state had plans to release several “human rights defenders and activists.”

The potential developments come as the United States is expected to continue to put pressure on Egypt regarding its human rights record, according to several informed sources.

According to one of these sources, Washington informed Cairo that human rights issues would remain an important source of concern despite the warming of relations between Egypt and the Biden administration following Cairo’s successful efforts in brokering a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in May.

According to the sources, Egypt’s human rights record was a main point of discussion among US lawmakers and other officials in their meetings with General Intelligence Services chief Abbas Kamel during his brief visit to Washington in June.

In December, Congress for the first time made the disbursement of military aid to Egypt conditional on the release of political prisoners without providing the State Department the option to waive the conditions in the interests of national security. The condition concerns a small portion of the total $1.3 billion in aid that Egypt receives annually from the US.

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