Egypt: Prominent women’s rights activist arrested in worrying escalation

The arrest today of Azza Soliman, the founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, an NGO which works to prevent violence against women, is a clear sign that Egyptian authorities are intensifying the crackdown on human rights activists, said Amnesty International.
Police officers arrived at Azza Soliman’s home this morning, presented an arrest warrant and took her to Masr el Gedida police station on the outskirts of Cairo, before taking her to an investigative judge’s office in New Cairo for questioning. 
“Azza Soliman’s arrest is the latest chilling example of the Egyptian authorities’ systematic persecution of independent human rights defenders. We believe she has been arrested for her legitimate human rights work and must be released immediately and unconditionally. The intimidation and harassment of human rights activists has to stop,” said Najia Bounaim, Deputy Director for Campaigns at Amnesty International’s Tunis Regional office.
The arrest comes around three weeks after the authorities froze Azza Soliman’s personal and organizational assets, without a court hearing, and on 19 November prevented her from travelling to Jordan to participate in a training session on women’s rights in Islam on the basis of a judicial order.
Her arrest warrant was signed by one of the judges overseeing the investigation into Egyptian human rights NGOs (known as Case 173 of 2011).  She will be questioned by the investigative judge who will either order her detention or release her on bail.
“Azza Soliman, along with several other Egyptian human rights defenders, is already subject to an arbitrary travel ban and an asset freeze. Her arrest marks an escalation in the use of a string of repressive tactics designed to intimidate her and other critical voices into silence,” said Najia Bounaim.
“There is a real risk that her arrest could signal an accelerating crackdown with many other human rights defenders subject to the same inquiry facing the risk of imminent arrest.”
In June 2014, 43 foreign and Egyptian NGO workers were sentenced to prison terms of between one and five years and a series of international NGOs were shut down, including Freedom House and the International Center for Journalists, in relation to Case 173.
In the past year, investigative judges have ramped up pressure on human rights groups, using arbitrary travel bans and assets freezes to muzzle freedom of expression, association and assembly in orchestrated efforts to dismantle the country’s human rights movement and crush the slightest signs of dissent.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is also posed to sign a draconian new law on associations which would give the government and security apparatus extraordinary power over NGOs.
Azza Soliman was also among 17 witnesses who were arrested after coming forward to give evidence about the killing of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, an activist who was shot dead during the dispersal of a peaceful march in January 2015. She was charged with protesting without notifying the authorities and disturbing public order but was finally acquitted in May 2015 and upon appeal in October 2015.
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