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The Egyptian government’s refusal to allow two human rights groups to register as legal entities casts a shadow over their capacity to work, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also expressed concern over the government’s detention and interrogation of a prominent Egyptian human rights activist as he was returning from a conference abroad.

On June 8, 2003, the New Woman Research Center received a letter from the Ministry of Social Affairs rejecting its application to register under the terms of a new law governing the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The letter stated that “security agencies do not approve the registration of the aforementioned foundation.” Several days later, the ministry again cited objections by state security to deny the application of the Land Center for Human Rights to register a new entity, Awlad al-Ard (Sons of the Earth).

“These two groups have been spotlighting important human rights issues for years,” said Joe Stork, Washington director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “By refusing to give them legal status, the government has confirmed that the new NGO law is intended to stifle civil society.”

The New Woman Research Center, founded in the early 1990s, raises public awareness of women’s rights issues, including female genital mutilation and domestic violence. The Land Center for Human Rights, founded in 1996, works on economic and social rights issues, primarily in rural areas. The center has produced a series of reports on agricultural child labor, land tenancy issues, and environmental problems, as well as other topics.

On June 15, Egyptian immigration authorities detained and questioned Mohamed Zarea, director of the Cairo-based Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRCAP), as he was returning from a regional human rights conference in Beirut. According to the HRCAP, Zarea was interrogated for an hour about the conference and the views of participants. The HRCAP said that Zarea refused to cooperate and was eventually cleared through Egyptian immigration.

Law 84/2002, passed by the People’s Assembly on June 3, 2002, requires existing groups to apply for registration with the Ministry of Social Affairs as NGOs within one year of the law’s passage in order to operate legally. Most Egyptian human rights groups have submitted applications, but in most cases they did so shortly before the June 3, 2003 deadline and have not yet heard from the Ministry of Social Affairs, which has sixty days to approve or reject the application or request changes in the group’s statutes. Human Rights Watch pointed out that article six of the law requires the government to justify any rejection in terms of noncompliance with the law.

“There is nothing in the law requiring clearance by the security services,” Stork said. “In banning these two groups the government has gone beyond even its own restrictive legislation.”

According to information received by Human Rights Watch, the ministry has held up the registration of at least one other NGO pending the removal of certain board members considered objectionable by government security services.

The New Woman Research Center has filed an appeal in the Administrative Court against the government’s decision. Law 84/2002 and the executive statute for its implementation contain vaguely-worded provisions which tighten state control over NGOs and severely compromise the right to freedom of association. The statute bars groups that the state determines to be “threatening national unity [or] violating public order or morals” (Article 11). NGOs are prohibited from receiving funds from abroad without ministry approval (Article 17; Executive Statute, Article 58). The Ministry of Social Affairs must approve nominees to the governing boards of NGOs (Article 34) and can deny requests to affiliate with international organizations (Article 16). The ministry can dissolve an NGO at will, as well as freeze its assets and confiscate its property, without a judicial order (Article 42).

The law provides criminal penalties for unauthorized NGO activities (Article 76). Persons who form “clandestine organizations” can be punished with one year’s imprisonment and a substantial fine—in effect criminalizing many forms of informal or grassroots organizing. A person who receives donations on behalf of an NGO without ministry approval can be sentenced to six months in prison. Persons carrying out the activities of an NGO prior to its formal registration are liable to a three-month prison term.

“In Egypt as elsewhere, the state has a legitimate interest in registering civil societies, but in a way that allows citizens to exercise their basic political rights,” Stork said. “Neither the letter of this law nor its implementation so far demonstrate good faith on the part of the government. If the past is any guide, the authorities will use this legislation to pounce on any group whose activities cross the very low threshold for dissent in Egypt today.”

Law 84/2002 passed the People’s Assembly despite widespread opposition from NGOs, which called attention to the unreasonable powers it gave the state. A similarly restrictive NGO law had been passed in 1999, but was struck down, largely on technical grounds, by Egypt’s Constitutional Court one year later. Many groups have until now functioned as companies registered under various provisions of Egyptian civil law. However, Law 84/2002 requires such groups or companies to re-register under its provisions in order to carry out NGO activities legally.

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