(Beirut) – Some of Egypt’s most prominent human rights organizations could cease to exist in the wake of a court order freezing their assets and those of their directors and founders. On September 17, 2016, a Cairo criminal court judge froze the assets of three groups, as well as the personal funds of five human rights defenders, as part of an investigation into their foreign funding.

The order places the frozen assets under government custodianship, meaning that the organizations and individuals can no longer make independent decisions about the seized money.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi shaking hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the 2015 UN General Assembly

© 2015 Reuters

“Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country’s most prominent independent human rights defenders,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “Egypt’s international partners should not be fooled by repression cloaked in the guise of legalistic procedure.”

The order targeted the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and the Egyptian Center on the Right to Education. It also included the personal assets of their directors, and those of Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, and Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. It was not immediately clear how the ruling would affect the latter two groups.

On June 15, 2016, a judge also froze the assets of another group, al-Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies.

These orders are provisional and can become final only after a criminal trial, according to Egyptian activists. At that point, the government could take over the groups and shut them down.

The September 17 asset freeze decision is one facet of an extensive case against independent Egyptian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) known as Case 173 of 2011, which alleges that as many as 37 NGOs have illegally received foreign funding.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should order the Justice Ministry to halt its investigation into human rights groups. The Egyptian government should abide by its March 2015 pledge at the United Nations Human Rights Council to “respect the free exercise of the associations defending human rights” and end its targeting of legitimate independent human rights work.

Under an article of the penal code amended by decree by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2014, NGO workers can receive a 25-year sentence if a judge determines that they received foreign funding for “pursuing acts harmful to national interests or destabilizing general peace or the country’s independence and its unity, or committing hostile acts against Egypt or harming security and public order.” It does not define such acts.

Investigative judges have banned at least 12 NGO directors, founders, and staff members from leaving Egypt, including from some of these organizations. Activists said the travel bans are probably a prelude to the filing of criminal charges against them.

The investigative judges issued their first travel ban in December 2014, against Esraa Abd al-Fattah, director of the Egyptian Democratic Academy. Nasser Amin, a member of the government-funded National Council for Human Rights, has also been banned from travel.

The investigation into the funding of local and foreign organizations began in July 2011, five months after the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak. It led to a criminal trial that concluded in 2013, when a judge handed down sentences of between one and five years to 43 employees of five foreign NGOs and ordered the organizations to close.

A new panel of three investigative judges chosen by the Cairo Court of Appeals at the request of the Justice Ministry began looking into the work and finances of independent Egyptian NGOs in 2014, when the Social Solidarity Ministry gave groups an ultimatum to register under an onerous associations law dating to Mubarak’s presidency.

Authorities have also pressured human rights defenders in other ways. Since April 2015, a judge has interrogated Negad al-Borai, a human rights lawyer involved in drafting an anti-torture law, at least six times. Al-Borai is being investigated for illegal funding, establishing an unlicensed entity, and spreading false information. In February 2016, security officers and local government officials attempted to shut down the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, stating that the center had violated the terms of its license, but providing no details.

The evidence used by the investigative judges in Case 173 appears to be based mostly on reports by the National Security Agency of the Interior Ministry. These reports claim the NGOs received funds for activities that harm national security.

On September 8, state media reported that the cabinet had approved and sent for court review a new draft law on associations that had been prepared without public discussion. Independent groups criticized the draft, saying that it would prevent human rights groups from legalizing their status and ban activists who have received prison sentences from forming their own NGOs. The law would place NGO activities and foreign funding under the supervision of a government committee that includes security agency officials and would require groups to obtain Social Solidarity Ministry approval before cooperating with foreign entities.

Egypt should withdraw the current draft law, wait for parliament to reconvene, and consider a 2013 proposal prepared under former Minister of Social Solidarity Ahmed al-Borai, which activists said was the most democratic draft yet prepared.

The UN Human Rights Council and member states should condemn the current crackdown on civil society members and demand concrete measures to improve respect for human rights, including the withdrawal of the current draft law on associations, Human Rights Watch said.

Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obliges Egypt, as a state party, to ensure freedom of association and remove any unlawful restrictions. Human Rights Council resolution 22/6 on protecting human rights defenders calls upon states to ensure “that no law should criminalize or delegitimize activities in defense of human rights on account of the origin of funding thereto.”

“Egypt’s international partners and should speak up now to prevent the disappearance of independent human rights groups,” Fakih said. “Members of the UN Human Rights Council should live up to their commitment to defend human rights defenders by demanding reforms from President al-Sisi and the Egyptian government.”