Egypt must overturn jail sentence for NGO workers

Egypt’s authorities must overturn the conviction of 43 people for working at unregistered non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt and receiving illegal foreign funding, Amnesty International said. The NGO workers were sentenced to between one and five years in prison by the Cairo Criminal Court on Tuesday. Amnesty International urges the Egyptian authorities to respect freedom of association and enable NGOs to carry out work in the country without hindrance. “The verdict appears to be intended to deal a deadly blow to civil society in Egypt,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “The Egyptian authorities must act now to protect independent civil society in Egypt and respect their commitment to human rights. This ruling sends a message that the Egyptian authorities continue to view NGOs with suspicion because of their work addressing and exposing human rights violations.”Five of the 43 NGO workers were sentenced to two years in jail and fined 1,000 Egyptian pounds (US$143). They include three Egyptian nationals – Sherif Mansour and Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, who were both working for Freedom House when the case was opened, and Yehia Zakaria from the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) – and two foreigners – US national Robert Becker, who was working for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and German national Christina Baade from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS). At least two of them are currently in Egypt and might be at risk of arrest and detention by the authorities pending the scheduling of an appeal. Twenty-seven others, including both Egyptian and foreign nationals, were tried in absentia and received five-year jail terms, but are reported to be all outside Egypt and therefore not at imminent risk of arrest. The 11 remaining NGO workers – all Egyptian nationals – received one-year suspended sentences. The judgment comes as the Shura Council discusses a new NGO law which imposes severe restrictions on the registration and activities of civil society in Egypt and gives the government the power to restrict funding of organizations operating in the country. The law has been widely criticized by human rights groups, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as it violates the right to freedom of association.Amnesty International calls on Egyptian authorities to uphold the right to freedom of association enshrined in the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party, by quashing these convictions and lifting arbitrary restrictions on NGOs.The court also ordered the closure of five international NGOs operating in Egypt and for their funds to be confiscated. These are Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the NDI, the ICFJ, and the KAS. The organizations had been operating under repressive legislation which hindered the registration of both national and international NGOs in Egypt. In practice, the Egyptian authorities simply did not respond to the formal requests of international NGOs to operate in the country, effectively forcing these organizations to operate in a legal limbo, without official approval but also without any official rejection of their application.The Egyptian authorities began the crackdown against international NGOs in July 2011 during the country’s 17-month military rule and it has continued under President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected in June 2012.  Raids were carried out in December 2011 on at least seven NGO offices, with papers, computers, equipment, books and money seized. The case was referred to trial in February 2012.