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Rights activists risk imprisonment

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, February 5, 2012 – Egyptian authorities should drop all charges against unregistered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and stop the criminal investigation of such groups, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should not take action against NGOs until Egypt's new parliament proposes legislation consistent with international legal standards, Human Rights Watch said. The organizations under investigation are not registered under the Mubarak-era Associations Law, in many cases because the government failed to respond to their requests to register.

On February 5, 2012, the state-run MENA news agency announced that two investigative judges hand-picked by the government had referred 40 NGO staff to trial, both Egyptian and American nationals. Over the past several months, the judges interrogated staff from at least seven groups, and on December 29 military and police raided their offices. A new draft NGO law proposed by the government would actually increase restrictions on free association, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities have given the organizations until February 3 to provide comments on the law.

“The Egyptian authorities are using a discredited Mubarak-era law to prosecute nongovernmental groups while proposing even more restrictive legislation,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop using the old law, halt the criminal investigations, and propose a law that respects international standards.”

On February 5, the investigative judges referred the investigation to a criminal court. The investigative judges had the discretion to drop all charges and close the investigation. The independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm had on January 1 quoted unnamed judicial officials saying that prosecutors had signed 43 arrest warrants for the staff of the NGOs that were raided. On January 30, judicial sources told Al-Masry al-Youm and another independent daily, Al-Shorouk, that they would issue arrest warrants “in the next days.”

Over the past two months, two government-appointed investigative judges, both former state security prosecutors, Ashraf Ashmawy and Sameh Abu Zeid, have summoned NGO staff for interrogation on charges of operating without being registered under the 2002 Associations Law and receiving funding without prior authorization. During the Mubarak era, security officials made it virtually impossible for human rights and democracy organizations to register.

On January 30, investigative judges summoned Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary. Police and military officers, as well as prosecutors, previously raided the center's premises, removing eight computers and hundreds of files. During Amin's questioning, they informed two lawyers who had come to represent him – Hafez Abu Saada, director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and Negad al-Bori, director of United Group – that neither could attend because both had been accused in the same case.

“This campaign targets the Egyptian human rights and democracy groups that were prevented from registering by Mubarak's security forces,” Stork said. “Foreign funding is their lifeline. Egypt's military government is now using the kind of tactics used by Zimbabwe and Ethiopia to silence independent voices.”

The Investigation

It is clear from the scope of the investigations that dozens of other organizations are also at risk. A leaked ministry of justice report in September 2011 listed 39 of the most vocal human rights organizations in Egypt as not registered under the Associations Law and said a further 28 were receiving foreign funds without prior authorization. The vast majority of those named were human rights and democracy organizations. A junior employee at the Arab Network for Human Rights Information was summoned to appear before the investigative judges on January 3, but when she went the next day accompanied by her lawyers, the judges said they “weren't ready for her yet.”

Gamal Eid, director of the network, told Human Rights Watch the investigative judges could decide to charge organizations which they have not interrogated or raided so far and refer them in the same case to court for trial.

On December 30, police and military forces raided 17 premises used by 10 NGOs. Minister for International Cooperation Faiza Abul Naga said at a news conference on January 1 that the raids were independently initiated by judicial authorities. However, the minister of justice appointed the investigative judges to this case, which is based on a fact-finding report by the justice ministry.

“Egyptian officials claim this is an independent judicial investigation but the judges were hand-picked by the same minister who commissioned the report on NGOs,” said Stork. “The government ordered this investigation so they should stop it and instead propose a new law in line with international standards.”

On January 17, Minister for Social Affairs Dr. Nagwa Khalil announced that the government was proposing a new Associations Law and that civil society groups had 15 days to comment on the draft. Human Rights Watch said the draft is identical to one first published in March 2010 by the Ministry of Social Affairs and rejected by independent human rights organizations because it would increase government control of NGO activities and independent decision-making.

A coalition of 39 NGOs, led by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, the New Women's Research Center, United Group, and others, jointly presented an alternative draft NGO law to parliamentarians on January 30. Their draft has the support of 300 other organizations.

“Governments have the right to regulate NGOs but not to micro-manage them and impede their activities and decisions,” Stork said. “Egypt's new parliament should pass a law guaranteeing the rights of civil society groups to work without improper official interference.”

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
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