(Beirut) – Police arrested a leading Egyptian women’s rights defender at her home in Cairo on December 7, 2016, a serious escalation in the authorities’ ongoing crackdown on independent rights groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

An investigative judge accused Azza Soliman of tax evasion, establishing an entity that conducts activities similar to those of registered associations, and obtaining funding for the purpose of harming state interests. 

© Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance

The police took Azza Soliman, a lawyer and founder of the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance, for interrogation before Judge Hisham Abdel Meguid, one of three judges assigned to investigate the foreign funding of independent Egyptian rights groups. Prominent rights activists had previously been summoned for interrogation in the investigation, but it was the first time that judges ordered the arrest of one of those involved in the case.

“The authorities’ drive to criminalize independent human rights work in Egypt keeps picking up speed,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If the government doesn’t halt this case, it could end with the country’s most prominent rights defenders behind bars.”

Judge Abdel Meguid later ordered Soliman released after she paid 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,100) for bail, but she remains under investigation.

In November, Cairo International Airport authorities told Soliman, as she was leaving for a conference in Jordan, that she had been banned from traveling outside Egypt by judicial order. Soliman also discovered that the Central Bank had frozen her personal assets and the assets of her organization.

During the interrogation, Judge Abdel Meguid accused Soliman of tax evasion, establishing an entity that conducts activities similar to those of registered associations, and obtaining funding for the purpose of harming state interests, a staff member of her organization told Human Rights Watch.

It is illegal in Egypt to receive foreign funds “with the aim of pursuing acts harmful to national interests or destabilizing to general peace or the country’s independence and its unity.” In 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi decreed an amendment to penal code article 78 that would mandate a 25-year prison sentence for that vaguely worded crime.

The investigation into the foreign funding of nongovernmental groups in Egypt began in 2011, after a nationwide uprising unseated longtime President Hosni Mubarak, when the cabinet ordered a report that identified 37 suspect organizations. The first prosecution under this investigation ended in 2013 with the conviction of 43 staff members of five foreign groups, four based in the United States and one in Germany. The convicted staff members were sentenced to prison terms of between one and five years. Many were not present for the trial, and the judge suspended the sentences of those in custody.

In late 2014, the Justice Ministry requested the Cairo Court of Appeals to appoint three investigative judges to continue the investigation, this time focusing on local independent groups in Egypt.

The investigative judges accelerated their work in 2016, summoning at least 17 human rights workers for interrogation, including the director of one group, Mozn Hassan of Nazra for Feminist Studies. The judges have also frozen the assets of at least 16 human rights defenders, including current and former directors, and seven organizations.

Egyptian human rights defenders say that those asset freezes are probably a prelude to filing criminal charges against them for illegally receiving foreign funding.

The reinvigorated investigation into local groups comes alongside an effort by Egypt’s parliament to strictly regulate the work of civil society groups and other nongovernmental organizations.

On November 29, parliament passed a law on associations that would place the work and funding of nongovernmental organizations under supervision of a government committee that includes representatives of the Interior, Defense and Justice Ministries, as well as the General Intelligence Service, Egypt’s top spy agency. The law would prohibit groups from conducting polls or field work without permission and ban work that harms national security, national unity, public order, or public morals, without defining those terms. Those convicted of breaking the law could face up to five years in prison.

President al-Sisi should reject the law and a new one should be drafted with the full participation of independent Egyptian groups, Human Rights Watch said.

Soliman previously faced prosecution after witnessing the fatal shooting of a protester in central Cairo on January 24, 2015. After a police officer shot Shaimaa al-Sabbagh during a peaceful demonstration, Soliman approached a local police station to give her account of what she saw. Instead, prosecutors accused Soliman and 16 other witnesses of protesting without permission and disturbing public order. A court acquitted them on October 24, 2015.