Against the background of the public protests that broke against President Abd el Fattah el Sisi in September 2019, the authorities have expanded the targeting of activists and civil society workers, politicians, and academics including defendants accused in case no 173/2011, known in the media as foreign funding case. These defendants were particularly targeted by Egyptian authorities against the backdrop of monitoring and documenting violations that accompanied the random arrests of not less than 2000 Egyptians.
Violations inflicted upon activists and human rights defenders are committed in ways that are far from the regular proceedings of any case and even before a verdict is issued by court. It appears that authorities are reluctant to resolve the case due to mounting international and national pressure to dismiss the case, adding to that, authorities are benefiting from the precautionary measure imposed on the defendants.
Nine years have passed since case no 173 for the year 2011, also known as foreign funding case, first appeared. It included a number of Egyptian and foreign civil society workers in Egypt. The case was then divided into two parts: the first one is referred to as the “foreign part” and the other is the “domestic part”. The foreign part was on international organizations were defendants, mostly foreigners, faced charges of receiving foreign funds and working without a license. This part was closed as all defendants involved were acquitted. Meanwhile, the Egyptian civil society workers who are included in the domestic part of the case had their assets frozen and their names added to travel ban list all while a verdict has not been issued yet.
This leads us to question the reasoning of this case; was it built on fact-findings and investigations or was it only to restrict the work of civil society workers and bring their efforts to end?
In July 2011, the cabinet ordered the set up a fact-finding committee to investigate foreign funding received by civil society groups and to determine which of those groups are registered and which are not. In September the same year, prosecutors Sameh abo Zeid and Ashraf Ashmawy were appointd to investigate the report of the aforementioned fact-finding committee. The report included 37 independent human rights organisation and international NGOs in Egypt. In February 2012, 43 civil society workers were brought to court facing charges of receiving foreign funds to “commit activities that harm the country’s national security, unity, and independence”. These charges, according the el Sisi’s new ammendements on article no 78 year 2014, are punishable by life sentence. In June 2013, the criminal court sentenced the 43 defendants to sentences ranging between 1-5 years. The court also ordered the closure of five organisations: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
In the beginning of 2012, 17 of the foreign civil society defendants have already left the country after Abd el Maguid Mahmoud, general prosecutor at that time, had their names lifted from the travel ban list. In February 1, 2018, Cassation court reviewed the appeals filed by defendants, and in April 2018, the court of cassation ordered a retrial. Finally, in December 2018, the court acquitted all 43 defendants.
Meanwhile the Egyptian civil organizations part is still being investigated by judges. In the course of year 2014 and 2016, investigative judges have ordered travel ban of 12 independent Egyptian civil society workers and assets freeze of 13 of the workers and founders of civil society organizations and their relatives in addition to assets freeze of three rights centers which are Cairo Institute of human rights studies, Hisham Mubarak Center for law, Egyptian Center for Human Rights Education.
Measures undertaken against rights activists accused in this case have been escalating in an unprecedented manner were at least 31 rights defender were banned from travel, 10 organizations had their assets frozen, and at least 37 civil society workers were summoned for investigations over the past years. In March 2016, the case was reopened as prosecutor Hesham Abd el Mageed ordered further extensive investigations after receiving new information that indicate other people might be involved in getting foreign funding.
As a result, a number of civil society workers were summoned for investigations before investigative judges including director and founder of Nazra for feminist studies Mozn Hassan, assistant director and former director of Nazra as well as 14 civil society workers from other organizations. Among those who had their assets frozen were director of Arab Network of Human Rights information Gamal Eid, founder of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hossam Bahgat, director of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies Mohamed Zaree, and Mozn hassan. It is worthy to note that a number of human rights defenders filed an appeal before Administrative court to halt the order of Appellate court the allows the reappointment of the investigative judge for almost three years.
the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association regarded assets freeze of NGOs and its directors as systematic repression practiced against civil society organizations and human rights defenders. The special Rapporteur called upon the Egyptian government to halt the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders and organizations. In another statement, a number of UN experts strongly condemned repressive actions against women in case 173, and stated that the government must immediately stop all repressive measures against human rights defenders, including travel bans and legislation that criminalizes legitimate activities. It is worthy to mention that during years 2017, 2018, and 2019, the Secretary General noted that Egyptian authorities should halt reprisals against defendants and close the case.
On another side, the European parliament called on the Egyptian government to drop all baseless accusations against all defendants in case 173. In another statement, the EU expressed grave concern at the reprisals against human rights defenders in the case and called on the Egyptian authorities to close the case, lift all travel bans imposed on the defendants, and allow rights defenders to attend the Universal Periodic Review in November 2019. During the Universal Periodic Review in 2019, the US and the Netherlands also called on Egypt to close the case, lift travel ban against rights defenders, and stop assets freeze of NGOs and civil society workers.
Patterns of violations inflicted upon defendants in case 173 since September protests.
Against the backdrop of September protests 2019, Egyptian authorities have expanded the targeting of civil society workers including a number of defendants in case 173 for the year 2011. These violations varied from physical assaults to legal and media harassment. Legal harassment included adding a number of these defendants to new cases and holding them in pre-trial detention as in the case of Israa Abd el Fattah. This in addition to the harassment of media outlets affiliated with the authorities through incitement and placing accusations as well as physical harassment though assault and psychological abuse.
Following September, 2019, protests, a number of activists, lawyers and human rights defenders were subjected to nationwide media campaign by print and television official or owned by businessmen affiliated with the regime where they were accused of inciting against el Sisi’s regime, collaborating with Muslim brotherhood (designated by the government as a terrorist group), and defending them.
This campaign has targeted a number of defendants in case 173. For instance, Khaled Ali, lawyer and founder of Egyptian Center for Social and Economic rights was accused by government-owned newspaper Akhbar El Youm September 30, 2019 of “supporting terrorist Muslim brotherhood group” and was accused by Sada el Badal, owned by a businessman affiliated with the current regime, of inciting protests.
This campaign also targeted founder of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hossam Bahgat who was accused by a presenter on El Mehwar channel which is affiliated with the regime that he receives funding from Qatar, a country that Egypt regards as supporter of terrorism. Same accusations were directed to founder of Arab Network for Human Righs Gamal Eid. Meanwhile, presenter of TEN TV, a channel also affiliated with the government, called for deprivation of nationality of Bahey el-din Hassan, and his trial of great treason. Worthy to note that in a previous episode that dates March 21st, 2019, the same presenter incited to the murder of Bahey el Din Hassan.
Amid the major escalation of activists arrests during October 2019, Egyptian authorities accused a number of defendants in case 173 including Dr. Aida seif el dawla, founding member of El Nadeem institute for Rehabilitation of torture victims and journalist Israa Abd el Fattah with spreading false news and were included in different cases.
Al Nadeem Center stated that they received a summons from El Azbakeya prosecution for Dr. Aida Seif el Dawla October 7, 2019. This came after a “citizen” filed report no 1876/2019 Azbakeya Administration accusing Dr Aida of spreading rumors and false news. She was interrogated before the prosecution on October 9 where she faced charges of spreading false news, in presence of her lawyer.
On March 10, 2020, Dr. Aida was summoned to a second investigation in the same case. These are usually the procedures that precedes the prosecution order whether by detention, release on bail or without.
Meanwhile, activist Israa Abd el Fattah was arrested October 12, 2019 and was detained in one of National Security Headquarters. She appeared the following day in High State Security prosecution where she was added to case no 488 for the year 2019 facing charges of joining a group that was established contrary to the provisions of the law and using social media platforms to spread false news. This is the case which Israa is still held on remand until this moment. Meanwhile, Bahey el Din hassan was sentenced three years in absentia and fined 20,000 EGP against the backdrop of expressing his opinion on twitter where he criticized the general prosecutor.
A number of activists and rights defenders in case 173 were either subjected to physical harassment during their arrest or were threatened to against the background of condemning violations infringed upon citizens after September protests.
Journalist Israa Abd el Fattah was beaten and choked in one of National Security Headquarters after she was arrested October 12, 2019. She was threatened in order to give them access to her cell phone as an officer told her “Your password or your life”. Israa was abducted rather than normally arrested. According to journalist Mohamed salah who was with her during the incident, two cars surrounded hers and plainclothes offices with firearms abducted her and put her in one of the cars. Mohamed was later arrested and was added to the same case, no. 488.
Journalist and director of Arab Network for Human Rights Gamal Eid faced the strangest assaults and threats among all. In October 2019, his car was stolen, and in the same month he was beaten until his ribs were broken. Late October, he woke up one morning to find his friend’s car that he had borrowed had been vandalized. This until December 29, 2019 when he was brutally assaulted on the street in front of his house. A number of security forces and a police officer pushed him to the ground and continued to beat him. Then a state security officer –whom Gamal was able to recognize, ordered the other officers to dump paint on him.
Case no. 173/2011 is one of the most important cases that reveals the endeavors of Egyptian authorities to repress the right to organize and restrict the work civil society and rights organizations. This implies a hostile stance against Egyptian civil society since the court fully acquitted all foreign civil society workers in the first phase of the case and is still stalling in the second domestic part of the case.
Escalating violations inflicted upon civil society workers in case 173 as well as freezing their assets and banning them from travel reflects a series of practices encountered to silence the internationally recognized voices of those civil workers.
Egyptian front calls on Egyptian authorities to amend NGOs law to guarantee the right to organize. Also, we urge them elevate arbitrary measures imposed on defendants in this case, and to either issue an immediate court verdict or dismiss the case which is the more logical since this case is only used as a legal hazing tool. Also, Egyptian Front urges the Egyptian State to stop targeting defendants in ways that are far from the regular case proceedings and to adopt a different. The Egyptian state needs to adopt a different view of human rights such as the right to organize and the right to freedom of expression as well as uphold the principal of the rule of law.