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Egyptian rights groups: Unjust ruling in NGO trial is a fatal blow to free expression

The undersigned Egyptian rights organizations condemn in the strongest terms the verdict issued on June 4 by the Cairo Criminal Court which convicted 43 staff members of international NGOs in the so-called “foreign funding case.” The defendants, who include nationals from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, the US, Germany, Serbia, and Norway, received prison terms ranging from one to five years and were each fined LE1,000.

The undersigned organizations assert that this unjust ruling represents a fatal blow to the objectives of the revolution and democratization and further entrenches the pillars of the new system of authoritarian rule, which is exhibiting unremitting hostility to civil society. Inspired by the former regime, the current authorities have excluded civil society, harassed human rights defenders and democracy activists, criminalized their activities, and used the media to defame civic organizations and promote views hostile to the universal values of human rights. The current authorities have further deployed the security apparatus to block civic initiatives, denied victims of abuses of their rights and legal support, and dragged the judiciary into their deceitful battle against civil society.

Throughout the last year since coming to power the regime of President Mohamed Morsi has revealed its unrelenting political agenda to sideline civil society – and to undermine organizations which defend human rights in particular – instead of allowing civil society space to play its essential role in supporting democratization. In fact, President Morsi's policies in many areas demonstrate that democratization is not a goal for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). This has been made crystal clear in the successive draft laws submitted by the MB, the FJP, and the presidency to organize the judiciary and govern civil society, as well as those hinted at by the MB which would restrict media freedoms.

The “foreign funding case” began in July 2011, when the prime minister formed a fact-finding committee to investigate what was called “the foreign funding that had entered Egypt following the January 25 Revolution.” This was accompanied by a concerted smear campaign against Egyptian and international civil society groups, accusing them of acting as agents for foreign powers, threatening national security, and implementing foreign agendas to create chaos – tactics taken directly from Mubarak-era policies. In fact, the smear campaign against civil society was headed by officials and ministers from the Mubarak regime who had remained in their positions after the revolution, in an attempt to seek revenge against rights organizations which had played an essential role in preparing the way for the revolution.

In a move unprecedented in Egypt's recent history, police and army forces raided 17 offices of ten organizations, among them Egyptian organizations, in late 2011, after which 43 staff members were referred to the Cairo Criminal Court on charges of establishing and administering branches of foreign organizations and receiving foreign funding.

On February 15, 2012, 31 rights organizations issued a statement condemning the investigations into this case, which relied on intelligence gathered by Mubarak's State Security agency. A review of the resumes of the judges who carried out the investigations may help explain the court's verdict, which was based on the report they prepared. Both judges had served as long-time chief prosecutors in the Supreme State Security Prosecution, which was the subject of widespread criticism and whose abolition had been called for by advocates of judicial independence, advocacy groups, and various political and social forces fighting for democracy prior to the revolution. The State Security Prosecution had been involved in fabricating charges against opponents of the Mubarak regime, aided in covering up acts of torture committed by State Security Investigations against political detainees, and functioned as a tool used in collaboration with State Security by the Mubarak regime to seek revenge against its political opponents.

During the period in which investigations were being carried out, these two judges violated a number of the most essential legal principles governing the work of the judiciary – considered by the Supreme Judicial Council to be among the crimes warranting the punishment of the judge responsible – by “trying” the suspects and others who had not been charged via the media over the course of several months, setting another dangerous new precedent. However, the Supreme Judicial Council, which was headed at the time by Hossam al-Ghariani (who later became the head of the Constituent Assembly), took no measures in response to these acts by the investigating judges, even after legal complaints were filed regarding the matter.

From the very beginning (summer and fall 2011), the “foreign funding case” saw blatant interference by the executive in the court's work, beginning with the manner in which the two investigative judges were appointed and including the pressure exerted on the judiciary to lift the travel ban on foreign staff of the involved organizations. It should be noted that some of the organizations whose staff members were given severe sentences for promoting democracy had operated in Egypt since 2005, cooperating consistently and publicly with the Egyptian government and with the full knowledge of the security apparatus. These organizations had tried repeatedly to register officially and had failed due to bureaucratic security procedures – the Egyptian Foreign Ministry did not reject their applications for permits, yet it also did not grant acknowledgement of receipt of their applications, placing these organizations in a precarious position indefinitely. The Egyptian government had sent official letters to a number of these organizations – even during the period during which investigations were being carried out and the smear campaign in the media was ongoing – inviting them to monitor the parliamentary elections which were held during the last three months of 2011.

The undersigned organizations assert that this unfair ruling comes in the context of attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government and parliament to suppress civil society and curb its activities by judicial and legislative means. For example, the deputy justice minister for legislative matters and the head of the fact-finding committee on foreign funding stated before the Shura Council on March 24, 2013 that investigations into the “foreign funding case” had ended with the referral of 43 defendants to the criminal court. He added that investigations of Egyptian organizations were still underway, which means that we can expect a second round of attacks on civil society groups, including the summoning of their directors and staff members for questioning and possibly being referred to trial.

Moreover, on the same day that the verdict was issued by the Criminal Court in Cairo, the Committee for Human Resources Development and Local Governance in the Shura Council began debating the draft NGO law submitted by the president on Wednesday, May 29. The bill has been severely criticized by Egyptian and international organizations as well as by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The new bill, which is currently being discussed in the Shura Council, blatantly contravenes both international standards for the freedom of association and the Egyptian constitution. It would impose severe restrictions on activities of Egyptian NGOs, registration, and the operation of foreign NGOs and place civic associations under the control of various security agencies, which would be represented on the steering committee to be established by the law. This bill would make the situation of foreign NGOs even more difficult than under the Mubarak regime. This proposed bill and the recent judicial ruling are essentially two expressions of the same process of undermining civil society in Egypt.

The undersigned organizations declare their solidarity with the staff of the foreign NGOs who were convicted in a politically motivated case that exploited repressive legal statutes and implicated the judiciary. We will continue to stand up to all attempts to restrict the right to association with draconian laws that do not comply with international standards.

Finally, we note that the current authorities still have the opportunity to renounce their aspiration to restrict the activities of organizations advocating democracy and human rights by withdrawing its repressive NGO bill and using the powers granted to the president by Article 149 of the constitution – which have been used more than once to grant amnesties for detainees and prisoners affiliated with armed Islamist movements – to issue a pardon for the democracy advocates and human rights defenders convicted in this clearly political case.

Signed,

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

Other Signatories

Andalus Institute for Tolerance & Anti-violence Studies (AITAS)
Arab organization for human rights
Arab Penal Reform Organization
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
Center for Appropriate Communication Techniques (ACT)
Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Aid
Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights
Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood Conditions
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)
Egyptian women’s union
Habi Center for Environmental Rights
Hisham Mubarak Law Center
Human Right association for the Assistance of Prisoners
Masriyon Against Religious Discrimination
Nazra for Feminist Studies
New Woman Foundation
The Egyptian Association For Community Participation Enhancement
The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights

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