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Human rights activist Gamal Eid is seen at a court in Cairo, March 24, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters / Asmaa Waguih

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities have summoned at least five prominent human rights defenders during July 2021 for questioning as part of a decade-old criminal investigation, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have used Case 173 of 2011 to arbitrarily prosecute leading rights defenders and organizations over allegations of receiving foreign funds.

Since 2016, authorities have summoned for interrogation dozens of members of nongovernment groups, mostly human rights organizations, and placed over 30 of them on arbitrary travel ban lists, and frozen the assets of over a dozen organizations and individuals. Three of the five people summoned in July had not been questioned previously. The case has had a chilling impact on civic space in Egypt.

“Egyptian authorities should close Case 173 once and for all, and stop harassing independent rights organizations for doing their work,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The repeated summons, on top of travel bans and asset freezes, is clearly a tactic to stifle civic space in Egypt.”

Those summoned most recently include Mozn Hassan, a women’s rights defender and director of Nazra for Feminist Studies and Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, on July 29. On July 27, the authorities summoned Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and Negad al-Borie, director of the law firm United Group. On July 15, the authorities summoned Azza Soliman, women’s rights defender and director of the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Awareness. The authorities had not previously summoned Bahgat, Eid, or al-Borie despite banning them several years ago from leaving the country.

Based on social media posts and statements by the activists following the latest prosecution sessions, the questions by the investigative judge, Ali Mokhtar, focused on the activists groups’ funding, in some cases as far back as 2005.

Judge Mokhtar allowed them to look at the prosecution file, which consisted mainly of National Security Agency allegations against them and their organizations, such as “tarnishing the image of the government” and in some cases referencing reports these organizations published about human rights abuses. The judge did not allow any of them to take copies of the prosecution files or inform them of the actual charges they are being investigated for.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) said in a statement that Eid’s interrogation lasted about three hours and that the judge ordered him to return for another session on August 1. The statement said that the prosecution file, which Human Rights Watch has not seen, included National Security Agency allegations that Eid and ANHRI had played a role in the country’s 2011 nationwide uprising, and that ANHRI had received funding from Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ has denied those allegations. Human Rights Watch is typically not a grant-making organization, Human Rights Watch said.

“Human Rights Watch has not provided funding to ANHRI or grants to any other group in Egypt,” Stork said.

The fact that the investigative judge is relying on unsubstantiated and transparently false allegations by the National Security Agency, which regularly acts outside the law and fabricates allegations to lock up peaceful dissidents, is telling, 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 unlawful restrictions to the exercise of that right. Human Rights Council resolution 22/6 (2013) on protecting human rights defenders says that states should ensure “that no law should criminalize or delegitimize activities in defense of human rights on account of the origin of funding thereto.” No restrictions can be lawful if they negate the essence of freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said.

In recent months, including during the July prosecution hearings, several Egyptian human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have been questioning human rights defenders about their organizations’ tax files and whether they had proof that they had filed their taxes. Al-Borie told the independent news website Mada Masr that the investigative judge ordered the creation of a committee from the Tax Authority to examine the taxes and finances of the organizations cited in Case 173. Nazra for Feminist studies said the same.

Two activists investigated in the case, one of whom was previously released on bail, said that the committee will probably be sworn in before the judge on August 1, but that it was not clear how many organizations the committee might investigate. The activists said that this is in fact a “re-examination,” because a previous committee also examined the groups’ taxes. Al-Borie said that the judge told him that the Case 173 investigations would conclude within “a couple of weeks.”

On July 29, Mada Masr quoted an unnamed government source as saying that “there’s an agreement between political and security authorities” to shut down Case 173 of 2011, but that “won’t mean the lift of asset freezes and travel bans.” The source said it is likely that “because of what they do,” some activists will face other cases, most likely including financial charges.

In recent months, several activists told Human Rights Watch, the authorities appeared to have been making efforts to center the Case 173 investigation around allegations of tax evasion and corruption to sidestep international and domestic calls to end the harassment of rights organizations. The two activists who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that the authorities most likely intend to impose huge fines on the organizations that would “paralyze their work” or even lead to prison sentences.

Even evidence of tax evasion or other wrongdoing does not justify the arbitrary travel bans and asset freezes those organizations have faced, without trial, for over six years, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Egyptian authorities are obviously looking for another excuse to continue their crackdown on critical nongovernment groups,” Stork said. “If they really want to fight corruption, they should lift these arbitrary restrictions and provide the environment that can unleash the full potential of civic engagement.”

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