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(New York) – 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 warrantsfor 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.”

The December 29 raidson 10 NGOs and the ongoing interrogation of Egyptian and international staff stem from an investigation first ordered in July by International Cooperation Minister Faiza Abul Naga, who served under Mubarak from 2001 onwards. The organizations raided include the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Failure to Reform Associations Law
The 2002 Law No. 84 on Associations authorizes the government to interfere with the registration, governance, and operation of nongovernmental organizations and impedes the right of Egyptians to operate independent associations. Although the law does not provide a role for security agencies in vetting NGO applications, in practice, under Mubarak, State Security Investigations (SSI), a division of the Ministry of Interior responsible for “political” affairs, frequently blocked the registration of independent human rights organizations. On two occasions after January 2011, government officials told NGOs seeking to register that one of the steps was “security approval.”

In June 2011, Human Rights Watch met with then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and then-Minister of Justice Abdelaziz al-Guindy. Both agreed that the Associations Law needed to be amended to meet international standards in the same way that the political parties law and the trade unions law were being reformed. Al-Guindy told Human Rights Watch that the government planned to amend the law but that this would require a broad consultation process and this was not among his legislative priorities. There was no attempt to start a process of amending the law. Instead in July, at the behest of the minister for international cooperation, the government decided to order this investigation on the basis of the 2002 law, Human Rights Watch said.

Proposed draft law
In the draft law, Article 9 limits the purposes of NGOs to “social welfare and development and enlightenment of society” and prohibits groups from working in more than two areas without government permission. Article 3 of the draft law says only the Ministry of Social Affairs can issue a license to any organizations practicing “the activities of associations or foundations” and provides a penalty of up to one year’s imprisonment and a fine for the organizations.

Article 35 allows the Ministry of Social Affairs to order the suspension of an organization’s activities or to remove its board of directors in certain situations and may refer the organization to court for dissolution if the activities continue or if it “is unable to fulfill its purposes.”

The draft law retains the requirements of prior government approval for any funding, stipulating in Article 13 that “no association is permitted to obtain funds from outside nor from Egyptian or foreign persons or entities or their representatives inside the country, nor sending funds to persons or organizations abroad except after obtaining a permission from the Competent Minister or after the elapse of 30 days with no written objection from the Competent Minister.”

The draft creates an additional layer of administrative authority, whereby NGOs have to apply for registration to the General Federation for Civic Associations and are also obligated to become members of the federation. The federation is a government-funded body whose head is appointed by the president and was historically used as a tool to undermine NGO independence, Human Rights Watch said. On January 18, Abdelaziz Hegazy, who remained in place as head of the General Federation for Civic Associations after the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, said at a seminar organized by the National Center for Social and Criminal Research that “there are too many NGOs and they need to be dissolved.” This statement is consistent with his positions in previous years, in September 2009 Hegazy told a seminar at the American University in Cairo “human rights organizations are well and good…I am not into slogans. Those are people of debates, books, meals and I refused to attend their meetings. In such circumstances it is impossible for the security to lift its hands off associations.”

Similar attempts to control NGOs through funding and micro-management have taken place in countries like Ethiopia, where the government has also set into place controls over internal NGO decision-making, fields of operation, and the receipt of foreign funding. In contrast, at the regional level, both Lebanon and Morocco have NGO laws which do not require prior approval for foreign funding, but require only a declaration of funding within 30 days in Morocco and in an annual report in Lebanon.

Smear campaign
Government and military officials have over the past months made a number of unsubstantiated allegations, accusing organizations that receive foreign funding or foreign groups operating in Egypt of being foreign agents or “part of a plan to undermine Egypt’s national security and spread chaos.” On December 21, Minister of Justice Adel Abdel Hamid announced at a news conference that the investigations into violencethat broke out at the sit-in in front of the Egyptian cabinet building had shown a link with foreign NGOs. He told reporters there was a “connection between the case of foreign funding of civil society organizations and the events and security disturbances of Maspero and Mohamed Mahmoud and the cabinet,” referring to demonstrations which grew violent and where excessive use of force by the military and police led to the deaths of at least 89 people.

In July, SCAF Major General Assar gave a talk at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington DC in which he saidthat foreign funding to NGOs without government pre-approval “represents a danger, in light of the recent incidents where many police weaponry was lost, and about 20,000 prisoners escaped from the prisons of Egypt following the events experienced by the country.” On July 28, 2011, Field Marshall Tantawy said in an address to officers that “there are foreign players who feed and set up specific projects that some individuals carry out domestically, without understanding. It is possible that there is lack of understanding, that foreign players are pushing the people into inappropriate directions [since they do] not want stability for Egypt."

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