Egypt convicted 43 NGO workers under the charges that the organizations, from US and Germany, were operating illegally in the Country.
The investigation of the groups on trial, along with dozens of other Egyptian human rights organizations not registered under the Mubarak-era Law 84/2002 on Associations, was initiated by the international cooperation minister, Faiza Abul Naga, in the summer of 2011, when Egypt was under military rule. The trial opened in March 2012 against Egyptian and foreign staff of four US organizations and one German organization, explains Human Rights Watch.
The court sentenced five of the workers to two years in prison and eleven others to a one-year suspended sentence. Those sentenced to two years are: Egyptian nationals Yehia Ghanem, Sherif Mansour, and Mohamed Abdelaziz; Robert Becker of the US; and Christine Baade of Germany. In addition, 27 defendants were tried in absentia and the court sentenced them to five years, an automatic conviction because they were not present during the trial. Under the Law on Associations, the court also ordered the seizure of all assets and closure of all branches of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, always according to HRW.
The Secretary of State of de US, John Kerry said in a statement that it was a ” politically-motivated trial”. And added that “this decision runs contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and is incompatible with the transition to democracy”.
“Moreover, the decision to close these organizations’ offices and seize their assets contradicts the Government of Egypt’s commitments to support the role of civil society as a fundamental actor in a democracy and contributor to development, especially at this critical stage in the Egyptian people’s democratic transition. Civic groups and international NGOs play a legitimate role in any democracy and are critical to advancing freedoms, supporting universal human rights, giving voice to citizens’ views, and acting as appropriate checks on the government. I urge the Government of Egypt to work with civic groups as they respond to the Egyptian people’s aspirations for democracy as guaranteed in Egypt’s new constitution,” says the statement.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was
“outraged about the harsh verdict against the NGO employees and the closure of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.” Westerwelle said the verdict is a “worrying decision that weakens the role of civil society as an important banner of democracy in the new democratic Egypt.”
Independent media in Egypt say that the verdict is “a disgrace” and “a farce”.
Human Rights Watch thinks that
“The Cairo Criminal Court’s conviction of 43 nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers on June 4, 2013, violates the right to freedom of association. The convictions are based on a repressive law governing organizations as well as penal code provisions that are not compatible with respect for fundamental rights. The court convicted the 43 activists on charges of operating unlawfully in the country and receiving foreign funding without permission. The verdict was handed down on the same day the Shura Council started to debate the presidency’s new draft law on nongovernmental organizations. The Egyptian president could address the violations of human rights raised by the investigation and trial in this case by pardoning those convicted, and amending the proposed new law regulating independent groups to bring it in line with international standards.”
“These are unjust convictions based on an unjust law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These workers for independent organizations should never have been charged in the first place. What’s particularly disheartening is that the new draft NGO law the Morsy government has proposed reflects the same suspicion of independent organizations that was the driving force behind the trial.”
The convictions violate basic internationally protected rights and the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said. The workers for these nongovernmental organizations have paid the price of a political disagreement between the Egyptian and US governments.
The Egyptian presidency published its latest draft of a new law to regulate nongovernmental groups on May 29 and submitted it to the Shura Council for further debate. Despite some improvements compared to previous drafts, the May 29 draft falls far short of meeting Egypt’s international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.
It would reinforce and formalize state control over nongovernmental groups by empowering the government to deny them access to both domestic and international funding. It would also give the authorities complete discretion to object to activities of Egyptian and international organizations, including human rights groups, that document or criticize rights abuses by the government.
The presidency’s new draft law does not include additional prison sentences, but article 70 incorporates the penal code provisions by stating in the first sentence “without prejudice to any harsher penalties in the penal code or any other law.”
“If President Morsy wishes to distance himself from the legacy of this politically motivated trial, he should amend the new draft NGO law in line with international standards instead of pushing through a law which would allow the government to control and block independent organizations.” Whitson said.