The decision to lift a travel ban on seven US nationals facing trial as part of an NGO crackdown in Egypt is a welcome step but it does not go far enough, Amnesty International said.
The organization has called for the charges based on the repressive NGO law against those on trial to be dropped, and for the authorities to end their attacks on civil society.
The seven are part of a group of 43 people – all but 14 of whom are foreign nationals – currently on trial for allegedly breaching Egypt’s Law on Associations.
Travel bans reportedly remain in effect for others connected to the investigation and there are fears that this case is being used as a prelude to a wider assault on Egyptian human rights organizations. Other foreign nationals are also reportedly under a travel ban in relation to a different case.
“The Egyptian authorities must not use this heavily publicized case to distract international attention from the situation faced by human rights organizations in the Egypt,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“When the international attention is gone, human rights activists in Egypt will bear the brunt of this offensive, both in court, and under the threat of an even more repressive Law on Associations.”
When announcing that the travel ban would be lifted, the court of appeals judge set bail for the US nationals at two million Egyptian pounds (US$332,000). In response to the prosecution of US nationals, US authorities were considering freezing US$1.3 billion in annual military aid to Egypt.
In addition to the seven US nationals covered by the latest measure – nine out of 16 left Egypt prior to the travel ban – those on trial include Egyptians, Serbs, Norwegians and Germans. Palestinians and Jordanians are also believed to have been charged.
All work for NGOs based in the USA and Germany, either witnessing Egypt’s parliamentary elections with the consent of the authorities, or conducting training on political participation.
Amnesty International observed the trial’s opening session at the North Cairo Criminal Court on Sunday, which was only attended by the 14 Egyptian defendants.
Among the charges levelled against the workers is that, contrary to restrictions in Egypt’s strict legislation on associations, their organizations accepted foreign funding and worked illegally in the country. At least three of the organizations are known to have formally requested registration with the Egyptian authorities.
Egypt’s Law on Associations (Law 84 of 2002) has been repeatedly criticized by UN treaty bodies and human rights experts.
On Wednesday, the trial’s future was thrown into confusion after the judges in charge of the case recused themselves. The next session had been scheduled for 26 April.
Egyptian human rights organizations are expected to be next to come under further attack. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and other Egyptian authorities have been quick to blame Egyptian human rights organizations for stirring unrest for reporting on human rights violations.
“The Egyptian authorities are trying to make Egyptian human rights organizations into the scapegoats for social unrest,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“They must know that allowing the US citizens to leave will not deflect international attention away from their prosecution of Egyptians.”
On 29 December 2011, offices used by Egyptian and international NGOs were raided as part of an official investigation.
Among those affected were the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession (ACIJLP) and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory (BHRO). Since the raids, members of both organizations have been summonsed and interrogated in the course of the authorities’ investigation.
Findings of a government investigation leaked in September 2011 named several human rights organizations as breaching laws on registration and foreign funding. This year, at least two members of human rights organizations have reported being interrogated about their organizations’ activities.
The Egyptian authorities are also pushing through a draft law that would introduce even greater curbs on the activities of civil society.
The new draft would give the authorities broad powers to decide whether an organization’s activities are acceptable, while maintaining strict rules on funding, and tightening registration restrictions.
Breaking the law would be punishable by up to a year’s imprisonment and fines running to thousands of Egyptian pounds.
“The Egyptian authorities must scrap this draft law, which goes above and beyond the already repressive Law on Associations, and ensure all legislation upholds the right to freedom of association,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.