Civil Society Crackdown: Letter from Executive Director Dr. Nancy Okail to UN

03/24/2016 . By TIMEP

On Thursday, March 17, TIMEP Executive Director Dr. Nancy Okail wrote the following letter to United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Torture, Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, and the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. The letter brings attention to the Egyptian government’s alarming decision to reopen the 2012–13 NGO trial, a case that violated basic freedoms enshrined in the 2014 constitution and in which Dr. Okail was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison and has, as a result, spent the past four years in exile.

Today, March 24, 2016, Cairo Criminal Court reviewed the ruling to freeze the assets of human rights defenders Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid, but did not issue a decision on the ruling, adjourning the case until April 20. Meanwhile, the case against NGOs continues; Mozn Hassan, the Executive Director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, faces interrogation next Tuesday.

These developments prolong the crackdown on civil society, paralyzing those facing charges and leaving them unable to continue work that is essential for Egypt’s stability and democratic function. 

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Messrs. Michel Forst, Maina Kiai, David Kaye, and Juan Mendez

Palais des Nations

CH-1211 Geneva 10

Switzerland

March 17, 2016

Dear Messrs. Forst, Kiai, Kaye, and Mendez,

I am writing to you today to direct your attention to the Egyptian government’s renewed crackdown on civil society, which occurs in continuation of the 2012–13 trial of staff of nongovernmental organizations in Egypt. As defendant number 34 in that case, I was personally sentenced in absentia to five years in prison and have as a result spent the past four years in exile. In the last few months, Egyptian authorities have taken blatant measures to indicate that they are reopening the case against about 37 domestic non-governmental organizations by summoning their workers for interrogation, and increasing harassment, including the issuing of travel bans without cause and the attempted closure of organizations.

As someone who experienced this crackdown firsthand, I am alarmed to observe many of the same repressive tactics that occurred in the lead-up to the 2012–13 case occurring again today. As such, I would like to take this opportunity to flag the following occurrences and urge you to publicly and immediately condemn these egregious violations and indicators of an intensifying crackdown:

– On March 17, the Cairo Criminal Court announced that it would hear a case regarding the freezing of assets of four persons and their families in relation to the NGO case, including founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hossam Bahgat and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid.

– On March 13 and 14, two members of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) received a summons to appear for questioning as part of the 2012–13 foreign funding case.

– On March 3, human rights defender and lawyer Negad el-Borai was charged with establishing an unlicensed entity, conducting human rights activities without a license, and spreading false information after writing and submitting a draft torture bill to the presidency.

– On February 17, al-Nadeem, a torture rehabilitation clinic and non-governmental organization, was served with an administrative closure order on the basis of a previously resolved procedural technicality. The order was likely the result of Nadeem’s recent reports highlighting hundreds of torture incidents perpetrated by security forces last year.

– Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, independent cultural institutions Merit Publishing House and the Townhouse Gallery with its attached Rawabet Theater were raided, with the latter temporarily closed.

– Travel bans have been issued for many defenders of rights and freedoms without cause and without notice, including to Mr. Bahgat and Mr. Eid.

These measures—some of which occur under Egypt’s repressive NGO law and its accompanying Penal Code amendment criminalizing the receipt of foreign funding—constitute violations of Egypt’s domestic and international legal obligations. Constraints upon the activities of civil society violate the right to freedom of association guaranteed in Article 75 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution, Article 10 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (the Banjul Charter), and Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Placing travel bans on human rights defenders via opaque processes violates the right to movement, guaranteed in Article 62 of the Constitution, Article 12 of the Banjul Charter, and Article 12 of the ICCPR. Creating an environment in which politically engaged and active human rights defenders are harassed for their reports, analytical pieces, and draft laws violates the right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Article 65 of the Constitution, Article 9 of the Banjul Charter, and Article 19 of the ICCPR. Finally, and as particularly relevant in the cases of al-Nadeem and Mr. el-Borai, impeding the documentation of torture and the reform of the legal regime governing it occurs in violation of Egypt’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture and under Article 52 of the Constitution, Article 5 of the Banjul Charter, and Article 7 of the ICCPR.

United Nations experts, including Mr. Forst, Mr. Kaye, and Mr. Mendez, have previously condemned similar measures by the Egyptian authorities which constrain the activities of human rights defenders and contribute to an environment of “fear and intimidation.”  Such fear and intimidation, the experts wrote, “inhibit the legitimate exercise of their rights and the performance of their work in Egypt.” On the NGO law specifically, Mr. Kiai has stated that the law “places additional burdens on associations that risk undermining legitimate human rights activities” and that Egypt “should permit any associations, including unregistered ones, to function freely, with their members operating in an enabling and safe environment.”

The closure of institutional spaces and the constraints upon civil society prevent Egypt from addressing the practices that plague it and allow for human rights violations to continue unfettered. As evidenced by recent demonstrations throughout the country, preserving a culture of impunity for such violations, while simultaneously silencing those who oppose it, will only push Egypt toward greater instability.

In light of the above, I urge you in your capacity as special rapporteurs to issue a joint public statement condemning the renewed crackdown upon civil society in its complex form and to raise the issues mentioned in this letter and as relevant to your respective mandates when engaging with Egyptian officials.

I would be happy to provide you with any further information and updates should you require it.

Sincerely,

Dr. Nancy Okail

Executive Director

Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy