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(Beirut) – An Egyptian court’s ban on the activities of the 6 April Movement is a clear violation of citizens’ rights to free association, peaceful assembly, and free expression. Rather than enforce the ruling against the youth opposition movement, authorities should dedicate themselves to overturning it in court.

Egypt’s Court of Urgent Matters ruled on April 28, 2014 in response to a lawsuit filed by a lawyer, Ashraf Said. The suit called on the interim authorities to freeze the protest movement’s activities on the grounds that it allegedly engaged in espionage and defamed Egypt’s image abroad. Authorities can potentially use the ruling to criminalize a range of activities well within the limits of peaceful opposition, Human Rights Watch said.

“Banning political dissent won’t make it go away,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.  “A judge’s gavel can’t turn back the clock to before 2011.”

The court’s ruling marked a further escalation in the government’s campaign against all peaceful opposition, Human Rights Watch said. Two of the group’s founding members, Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel, and a third activist, Ahmed Douma, are serving  three-year sentences issued in December 2013 for demonstrating against a repressive protest law and assaulting police officers. On April 7, a court rejected their appeal.

The 6 April Movement, which emerged on that date to support a 2008 industrial strike in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla al-Kubra, was a key player in organizing the January 25, 2011, mass protests that prompted the ouster of Hosni Mubarak from Egypt’s presidency.

Said told the government-owned newspaper Al-Ahram that recorded phone calls among leading 6 April members aired on the television talk show “Black Box” in December 2013 inspired him to file the lawsuit. The host, ‘Abd al-Rahim ‘Ali, claimed he had more than 5,000 such recordings that proved the youth opposition group was “conspiring against state institutions.” Whatever the legality of the wiretaps, their release to the media clearly violated the activists’ right to privacy, as protected by the Egyptian constitution and international law.

The 6 April Movement’s popularity rocketed among Egypt’s youth after Mubarak stepped down. Since then government-friendly media and, at times, the government itself, have repeatedly accused 6 April of, for example, sedition and working with “foreign hands” against Egypt. In July 2011, the group took to the media to ask Egypt’s general prosecutor to investigate it to clear it of allegations of any wrongdoing after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power following Mubarak’s fall, claimed that the group was engaged in “suspicious schemes that seek to sow division between the armed forces and the people.”

After supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy in his successful 2012 presidential election campaign, the 6 April Movement backed the June 30, 2013 mass protests that encouraged the military to remove Morsy from the presidency. As Egypt’s human rights crisis worsened under the military-backed government, the group returned to opposition, and again became the target of a media rumor campaign.

Egypt’s protest law, as amended by presidential order on November 24, 2013, empowers security officials to ban protests on vague grounds, allows police officers to forcibly disperse any protest if even a single protester so much as throws a stone, and sets heavy prison sentences for offenses such as attempting to “influence the course of justice.” The law also gives the Interior Ministry the right to ban any meeting “of a public nature” of more than 10 people in a public place, including meetings related to electoral campaigning.

In a March 3 letter from Torah prison, just south of Cairo, the 6 April founder Maher urged fellow activists to tell the world that “the police display brutality every day, and there is no one who can stop them from murdering us in our cells if they want to. Tell them that there is no protection today nor tomorrow, and tell them that whoever is silent about it today will face worse tomorrow.”

“Years of vilification did not silence the youth who risked their lives for a more democratic Egypt, and this ruling won’t either,” Stork said. “Rather than enforcing this ban, authorities should be vigorously defending the rights enshrined in Egypt’s constitution.”

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