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Government harasses, closes offices of workers' rights organisation in apparent retaliation for its reporting on labour issues

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a Human Rights Watch press release:

Egypt: End Harassment of Labor Rights Group
Government Should Reverse Decision to Close CTUWS Offices

(Cairo, April 26, 2007) - The Egyptian government should immediately reverse its order to close the headquarters and two branch offices of the Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS), Human Rights Watch said today.

Security officers on Wednesday closed the headquarters of the CTUWS, which offers legal aid to Egyptian factory workers, educates them as to their rights, and reports on labor-rights issues in the country. Police had closed two of the group's branch offices in recent weeks. The Ministry of Social Solidarity has blamed the CTUWS for inciting labor unrest around the country.

"The government decision to shut down the Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services is a serious blow to Egyptian civil society and workers' rights," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Egyptian government should address the causes of widespread labor unrest instead of going after workers' rights groups."

Plainclothes security officers had surrounded the CTUWS headquarters since April 23, 2007, when representatives of other Egyptian civil society groups had begun a sit-in there to express solidarity with the organization. According to human rights lawyer Gamal Eid, who was at the headquarters when the police shut down the offices, more than 200 policemen surrounded the CTUWS headquarters in the industrial Cairo suburb of Helwan on April 25, saying they had an order from the Ministry of Social Solidarity to close the organization. A representative of the Helwan local council cut power to the office.

The government's closure of the CTUWS headquarters is the latest step in its aggressive crackdown on the organization. On April 11, approximately 100 police officers arrived at the CTUWS office in the Nile Delta town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra to deliver an administrative decision ordering its closure. This came after General al-Sharbini Hashish, head of the local council in the southern industrial town of Naga` Hammidi, issued an administrative decision on March 29 ordering the closure of the CTUWS branch there, on the grounds that it violated Egypt's law on associations, though the order did not specify how ( http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/04/16/egypt15696.htm ).

The government's campaign against the organization comes amid widespread and continuing labor unrest in Egypt. According to media reports, there were more than 200 labor protests in Egypt during 2006. The largest was a public-sector textile workers' strike at a factory in al-Mahalla al-Kubra in December 2006. That strike came after the al-Mahalla office of the CTUWS helped inform textile workers of a prime ministerial decree that all public-sector textile workers should get higher year-end bonuses. Factory managers initially denied the decree had been issued. More than 20,000 workers eventually went on strike until the government offered them an increased bonus.

Since then, factory workers across the Nile Delta have gone on strike or have staged other protests. Most recently, on April 24, according to an article in Cairo's independent newspaper Al-Masri al-Youm, 1,300 textile workers in Suez went on strike to ask for wages they said management had not paid. Some of the workers began hunger strikes.

The move to close the CTUWS headquarters also followed an April 20 letter from the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to President Hosni Mubarak asking him to instruct the relevant authorities to remove restrictions on the CTUWS' activities. The CTUWS reported widespread irregularities in the 2006 union elections across Egypt. The ITUC had indicated it would look to the elections as it evaluated the independence of the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, many of whose officers occupy senior positions in the ruling party. The Federation is applying for membership in the ITUC.

"Closing the CTUWS offices is a petty and illegal attempt to punish the group for exposing irregularities in the 2006 union elections," Whitson said. "The government should immediately reverse this misguided decision and fulfil its legal obligations to uphold the rights to freedom of association and free speech."

Egypt is a state party to many international treaties that protect freedom of expression and the right of association, including the right of workers to organize freely.

For more information on the Egyptian government's campaign against the CTUWS, please visit:
http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/04/16/egypt15696.htm

To view the July 2005 Human Rights Watch report, "Egypt: Margins of Repression - State Limits on Nongovernmental Organization Activism," please visit:
http://hrw.org/reports/2005/egypt0705/

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