Egypt: Authorities escalate punishment of human rights defenders

The cruel and inhuman treatment meted out in prison against Gasser Abdel-Razek, Executive Director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), is outrageous and shows the Egyptian authorities’ determination to escalate this crackdown against human rights defenders, said Amnesty International. Yesterday, Gasser Abdel- Razek appeared before a prosecutor for questioning, and a meeting of ambassadors to the Human Rights Council took place in Geneva to discuss the international response.

On the same day, judicial authorities added human rights defender and founder of Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms Mohamed al-Baqer to the “terrorists list” for five years, along with prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abdelfatah and other opposition politicians, without charging them with a criminal offence, nor giving them an opportunity to challenge the evidence.

“Instead of responding to global calls to end the unprecedented attacks on the EIPR, the Egyptian authorities continue to add to the litany of committed human rights violations by deliberately ill-treating Gasser Abdel-Razek in solitary confinement without access to basic necessities as punishment for his human rights leadership. EIPR has been documenting and fighting against such violations for 18 years, and its staff are now paying a heavy price,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director.

“The arrest of EIPR staff, following a meeting with diplomats, Gasser Abdel-Razek’s punitive treatment in detention and the designation of human rights defenders as ‘terrorists’, are the latest illustrations of how deep and catastrophic the crisis of human rights in Egypt has become. States and UN actors cannot continue to tolerate a status quo in which civil society is being cut off and suffocated without consequence; they must, through word and deed, demand meaningful improvements to the human rights situation in Egypt. As part of this broader response, it is time for the UN Human Rights Council to take immediate steps towards establishing a monitoring mechanism on Egypt.”

Amnesty International fears that Gasser Abdel-Razek is being deliberately held in poor conditions to punish him for his human rights work. Since his transfer to Liman Tora Prison on 20 November, Gasser Abdel-Razek, a veteran human rights defender and father-of-two, has been held in solitary confinement in a cold cell, denied warm clothing or a mattress. All his personal belongings and money have been confiscated. Prison authorities have denied him any time outside his cell, including for exercise. They also prevented him from purchasing basic necessities from the prison canteen. Yesterday, Gasser Abdel-Razek appeared in front of the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) for additional questioning. Prison authorities shaved his head completely, an unusual step for pre-trial detainees, raising further concerns over discriminatory and punitive treatment.

Gasser Abdel-Razek, Criminal Justice Unit director Karim Ennarah and Administrative Director Mohamed Basheer, are all detained pending investigations into bogus “terrorism”-related charges, solely as a result of the EIPR’s human rights work. They were arbitrarily arrested between 15 and 19 November in retaliation for a meeting with western diplomats earlier this month.  A fourth staff member, Patrick George Zaki has been in prison since his arrest in February 2020 upon his return from Italy where he was studying.

The Egyptian authorities regularly use unfounded “terrorism” related charges to imprison human rights defenders and to subject them to punitive measures without trial. Human rights defenders Mohamed al-Baqer, Esraa Abdelfatah, Mahienour al-Masry and Solafa Magdy are detained pending investigations in the same case over similar “terrorism” related charges.

Amnesty International has documented the Egyptian authorities’ routine and systematic use of counter-terror legislation to prosecute thousands of peaceful critics and suspend guarantees to fair trial.  Multiple UN experts have expressed concern about how Egypt’s terrorism laws facilitate rights abuses, and how imprisoned human rights defenders in Egypt are at grave risk of COVID-19.  Egypt has a history of reprisals against civil society for engaging with UN officials.  To our knowledge, however, this is the first case of reprisals against civil society for engaging with a group of diplomatic representatives, thereby representing an escalation in the authorities’ crackdown.

On 20 November, the Spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed deep concern “that the targeting of human rights defenders and other activists, as well as further restrictions on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly imposed in the country, are having a profound chilling effect on an already weakened Egyptian civil society.” On the same day, the Secretary General, through his Spokesperson, endorsed this statement.  On 23 November, Amnesty International along with other organizations, participated in a meeting hosted by a number of Human Rights Ambassadors focused on how to respond to the arrests against EIPR staff, and the larger context of repression against civil society.

“Egyptian authorities regularly use unfounded ‘terrorism’ charges to detain and defame human rights defenders in the eyes of the Egyptian public and international community. In reality, the Egyptian authorities view legitimate human rights work like defending LGBTI rights, opposing the death penalty, defending religious minorities and promoting the right to health as terrorism” said Philip Luther.

“The international community must show to Egypt that they utterly reject the equation of defending human rights with terrorism and continue to demand the immediate and unconditional release of all detained human rights defenders in Egypt.”