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(Beirut)Egyptian authorities should revoke an order that would shut down the most prominent institution in Egypt providing regular medical services and counseling to victims of police torture and other violence.

Protest co-organised by El Nadeem Center on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26, 2013. El Nadeem Center Facebook Page

On February 17, 2016, the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, founded in 1993, received an “administrative closure order” from Cairo governorate authorities stating that the center had violated the terms of its license but providing no details.

“It’s unconscionable for Egyptian authorities to shut down a clinic for torture victims, especially when Interior Ministry agents are committing rampant abuse of people in custody,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The Egyptian government should immediately revoke its closure of the Nadeem Center.”

Nadeem Center co-founder Aida Seif al-Dawla told Human Rights Watch that closure of the clinic had been postponed until February 22, when center representatives will meet with the Health Ministry to discuss the reasons behind the order.

In a post on Facebook, Seif al-Dawla wrote that that the order was the result of a decision by the Health Ministry’s Free Treatment Directorate and had been delivered to the center by police officers accompanied by a city employee. When a doctor at the center inquired about the license violations alleged in the order, the officers said that they had no information and that the issue was between the center and the Free Treatment Directorate.

Egyptian security forces, particularly the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency, regularly torture people in custody and over the past year have forcibly disappeared scores of Egyptians, sometimes for months at a time. The order to close the Nadeem Center came soon after the apparent torture and murder of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni in Cairo. Several media outlets, citing witnesses and security officials, reported that Regeni, who disappeared on January 25, was detained by security forces before his burned and maimed body was discovered on February 4.

The government’s move to close the Nadeem Center also comes at a time of rising government pressure on independent human rights groups in Egypt, Human Rights Watch said. In the past year, the authorities have applied travel bans to several Egyptian human rights researchers, and government officers have visited the premises of human rights institutions as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into their funding.

Most recently, on February 4, Gamal Eid, the founder and director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, was banned from traveling to Athens. Human Rights Watch is concerned that such travel bans may be a prelude to prosecution.

The origins of the Nadeem Center date to 1989, when Seif al-Dawla and her colleagues saw the effects of torture by security forces following an ironworkers’ strike and decided to open a psychological rehabilitation clinic, she told the independent news website Mada Masr in October 2015. As the center’s work grew, it took on victims of torture as well as women who had faced violence and began operating its own legal clinic.

In July 2014, following the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Social Solidarity Ministry ordered all Egyptian and international nongovernmental organizations to register under a restrictive 2002 law on associations that would empower the government to shut down any group virtually at will, freeze its assets, confiscate its property, reject nominees to its governing board, block its funding, or deny requests to affiliate with international organizations. The ministry set a November 2014 deadline for registration.

Though the government never enforced the deadline, a decree issued by al-Sisi in September 2014 raised the penalty for receiving foreign funding to life in prison in certain cases.

In response, many independent groups drastically curtailed their operations, relocated employees outside Egypt, or took steps to register under the 2002 law. The Nadeem Center closed its legal clinic, though it continued to provide medical care and counseling and issued monthly summaries of reported instances of torture, death, and medical negligence in police custody.

Seif al-Dawla, a psychiatry professor at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, has received several international awards for her pioneering work, including Human Rights Watch’s highest honor in 2003.

“The Egyptian authorities are smothering the country’s leading human rights defenders one by one,” Whitson said. “Closing the Nadeem Center would be a devastating blow to Egypt’s human rights movement as well as victims of abuse.”

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