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Egypt: NGOs demand apology after closure of 13-year case over lack of evidence

Dozens of rights defenders have been affected by travel bans and asset freezes for over decade in a 'politically motivated' case
Hossam Bahgat is demanding an apology and remedy after a travel ban and freeze on his assets was reversed on 20 March 2024 (AFP/Mada Masr/file photo)

Egypt has announced the closure of a 13-year landmark case in which human rights defenders were accused of receiving illicit foreign funding - but those affected by the allegations are demanding justice.

An investigative judge on Wednesday declared the closure of case 173/2011, known in the media as the “foreign funding case”, due to what he described as “insufficient evidence”.

The case has been widely denounced as a politically-motivated attack on Egypt's civil society. 

Judge Ahmed Abdel Aziz Qatlan's decision marks the end of a probe against 85 organisations.

It also means an end to asset freezes and travel bans imposed on members of these organisations, he added.

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In the case, rights groups and their staff were accused of “crimes against national security”, with only their online publications used as evidence.

But no formal charges were brought against them, and no trial was initiated. 

Before the decision on Wednesday, accusations against most of the organisations implicated had already been dropped and this week’s decision only affects five organisations. 

These were the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR); the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI); the Arab Penal Reform Organisation; the Cairo Institute For Human Rights Studies; and Al-Nadeem Center for  Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

Rights groups and human rights defenders have called for an apology and compensation for the defendants. 

Hussein Baoumi, foreign policy advocacy officer at Amnesty International, who had previously monitored the case as Amnesty’s Egypt researcher, said the closure of the case is a welcome step but is “long overdue".

Public apology

“The government must issue a public apology and compensate the human rights defenders for years of smearing and punitive measures, merely because they defended the rights of millions of people,” he told Middle East Eye.

Baoumi expressed cautious optimism about the government’s respect for the court decision. “It is too early to say if this marks a serious shift in the government's crackdown on civil society,” he said.

“Closing case 173 must be followed by lifting all travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders, all those arbitrarily detained must be released and the NGO law must be amended to bring it in line with Egypt's obligations.”

Hossam Bahgat, director of the EIPR, has been under a travel ban and barred from accessing his bank account for eight years.

Following the closure of the case, he said he felt “vindicated but not relieved".

He demanded “an official and public apology and restitution for the psychological and material damage resulting from this bogus case".

Gamal Eid, the founder of the ANHRI, welcomed the decision to lift his travel ban but said he still hopes for "the return of all the innocent and oppressed people to their families and loved ones", referring to the estimated 65,000 political prisoners still languishing in Egyptian jails.

Screenshots as evidence

During investigations into one organisation, a security official testified before an investigative judge using 107 screenshots of the NGO’s work. He accused it of “harming national security, spreading instability in Egypt, encouraging a state of chaos and a security breakdown, encouraging rifts within Egyptian society and the failure of the Egyptian regime".

In another case, an organisation was accused of “spreading false allegations” about religious minorities in Egypt and the existence of discrimination against Coptic Christians and Bahais, “with the purpose of harming national security and tarnishing the image of the country abroad", as well as "publishing false statements about the existence of sectarian strife in Egypt".

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHRs) said on Friday: “The decision does not remedy the injustices suffered by the dozens of human rights defenders targeted by the case over the course of the previous decade.

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“Egyptian authorities must issue a formal apology to the victims of this persecution and compensate them for the losses and hardship they have been forced to endure."

Bahey eldin Hassan, CIHRs director, has been sentenced to 18 years in jail in absentia and his sentence remains in effect, the group said. 

Hassan and dozens of other human rights defenders are currently living in exile because they fear arrest if they return to Egypt.

CIHR also called on Egypt to put an end to its ongoing crackdown on civil society and human rights defenders, including Ibrahim Metwally, Ezzat Ghoneim, and Hoda Abdelmoniem, who are still behind bars in connection with their work.

CIHR pointed out that the Sisi government has added human rights defenders - such as Mohamed al-Baqer - to its “terrorism list”.

In addition, activists Gasser Abdelrazek, Karim Ennarah, and Mohamed Bashir of the EIPR remain under travel bans and have had their assets frozen.

CIHR is calling for a review of Egypt’s counter-terrorism legislation and penal code to safeguard the freedom of human rights defenders to carry out their jobs without fear of reprisals. 

“Only through a comprehensive review of repressive Egyptian legislation, the releasing of the tens of thousands of peaceful political prisoners, and a genuine opening of public space, can Egyptian authorities demonstrate genuine political will to reform,” it said.

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