Middle East

UN urges Egypt to halt repression of NGOs

Hossam Bahgat (file) Image copyright AP
Image caption Journalist Hossam Bahgat is one of a number of rights defenders facing prosecution

The UN has expressed grave concern over the closure of hundreds of civil society organisations in Egypt and the prosecution of human rights defenders.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein warned the clampdown would "stifle the voices of those who advocate for victims".

On Thursday, a court is due to rule on the asset freeze ordered against rights defenders Gamal Eid and Hossam Bahgat.

They are accused of illegally receiving funding from a foreign government.

The prosecutions of Mr Eid, a lawyer who heads the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and Mr Bahgat, a journalist and former head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, are part of a five-year investigation into local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The first phase concluded in 2013, when a court sentenced 43 foreign and Egyptian employees of five international NGOs to between one and five years in prison, although the sentences were either suspended or issued in absentia.

NGOs 'crippled'

Under President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who led the overthrow by the military of President Mohammed Morsi that year, the authorities have focused on local NGOs.

The Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said many NGOs had been dissolved under the 2002 Law on Associations.

The law empowers the government to shut down any group not believed to be acting in compliance, freeze its assets, confiscate its property, reject nominees to its governing board, and block its funding, or deny requests to affiliate with international organisations.

Other NGOs have been closed over alleged links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement to which Mohammed Morsi belonged.

On just one day this month, at least 20 NGOs were dissolved in the Nile Delta region and other NGOs elsewhere in the country had their activities frozen pending investigation, according to the OHCHR.

Among NGOs at risk of closure is the Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. Last month, officials told staff that by publishing reports on torture they had breached their licence to carry out human rights activities because this was deemed an unlicensed "medical activity".

Human rights activists, journalists and political activists have also been subjected to travel bans. Sources told the OHCHR that hundreds of people had been prevented from entering or leaving the country, in many cases without any judicial order.

"This looks like a clampdown on sections of Egyptian civil society and it must stop," Mr Zeid said. "NGOs who have played a valuable role in documenting violations and supporting victims will see their activities completely crippled if this continues."

Mr Zeid added: "The Egyptian authorities must stop all prosecutions targeting legitimate human rights activities and in particular terminate the cases against Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, who by international standards have clearly not committed any crime."

A group of 14 international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also condemned the crackdown on Wednesday.

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