Last week, South Cairo Criminal Court acquitted all 43 NGO workers who had been convicted to prison in 2013 for allegedly operating in the country without proper licenses and for other charges related mostly to their organisations receiving foreign funds. All defendants appealed against their sentences, leading to a retrial of Case 173 which had previously outraged international humanitarian and human rights organisations and especially the United States. This acquittal comes after a top appeal court in Egypt overturned the sentences of 16 other civil society workers in April this year.
This high profile case started in 2012 and a year later an Egyptian court sentenced 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers to prison terms between one and five years. At the same time, their organisations were ordered to halt all operations in the area and leave Egypt as they were accused of operating without licenses and of receiving foreign aid illegally.
Most of the foreign defendants were German and American nationals working for human rights and pro-democracy NGOs affiliated with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany, the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House. The other NGO workers found guilty in this case had passports from Serbia and several Arab countries. The 2013 sentences seriously affected the diplomatic ties with the US because the US-based NGOs most of the defendants worked for were linked to America’s two main political parties while Washington is also giving Egypt $1.3 billion per year in military aid.
A Bogus Case
Many of the foreign civil workers found guilty in this case received their sentences in absentia, as they had already fled Egypt in 2012 when the authorities had lifted a travel ban against them. One of them was American Sam LaHood, the son of Ray LaHood, then-US transportation secretary. When he found out that his sentence was overturned, he tweeted:
“I hope this is the first step in reversing the damage done by Case 173 to Egypt and her great people”.
Case 173 was seen by most humanitarian and human rights organisations as being part of an ongoing crackdown on NGOs and human rights activist in Egypt. Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director, said that this acquittal “is a step in the right direction for Egyptian justice. This was a bogus case that targeted human rights defenders simply for doing their legitimate work and should have never happened in the first place”.
Egyptian NGOs are still at risk
However, Bounaim also warned that this ruling only related to the financial dimension of the case which investigated the funding of international NGOs; local Egyptian NGOs are still under investigation at the moment and dozens of members of staff are still at risk. She claims that “Egyptian human rights defenders have been treated as enemies of the state and subjected to an unprecedented crackdown, including asset freezes, travel bans and prosecutions. The key test now will be whether today’s court decision paves the way for an end to the persecution of all human rights defenders in the country.”
For the past 4 years, Egyptian judges have been investigating the work and sources of funding of several local NGOs. These investigations led to 6 organisations and 10 human rights activists having their assets frozen. Even more, some 30 human rights defenders and NGO workers have been banned from traveling abroad while at least 6 directors and 61 civil society organisation staff have been summoned for official interrogation.
What is most worrying, however, is the fact that in the past 2 months alone, the Egyptian police and National Security Agency (NSA) have arrested between 40 and 80 human rights activists, lawyers and workers mostly during home raids, without showing arrest warrants or informing their families about where they would be taken. During these raids, Egyptian security forces violently search the houses and destroy many personal belongings and furnishings. Some of these cases are considered to amount to enforced disappearances, which include, under international law, situations in which a person is detained by state forces and the state then refuses to reveal where they are being held and what for.
Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said that the Egyptian security agencies’ repression now extends to making disappear the men and women who have been trying to protect those already missing and put an end to this abusive practice.
“The governments apparently wants to quash what remains of Egyptian civil society”, Page added.
According to several human rights organisations, many of these detainees are being held secretly in NSA headquarters and often tortured there, both practices illegal under international law.
Human rights organisations are now calling on the Egyptian authorities to lift all travel bans and stop freezing civil workers’ assets.
Egypt must also urgently stop persecuting NGO staff and drop their investigations into Egyptian NGOs and human rights defenders for their legitimate human rights work.