The United Nations has urged Egypt to release three members of a rights group arrested within days of each other, adding to international pressure on the country over the case.
The call came on Friday as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) was targeted after several ambassadors and diplomats visited its Cairo office on November 3.
Security forces arrested EIPR office manager Mohamed Basheer on Sunday, before detaining researcher Karim Ennarah on Wednesday and executive director Gasser Abdel-Razek on Thursday.
Authorities in #Egypt must end their vicious reprisal campaign against @EIPR and immediately and unconditionally release three senior staff members arrested arbitrarily, said Amnesty International today. #EIPR https://t.co/WwJBx4EUpR
— EIPR المبادرة المصرية للحقوق الشخصية (@EIPR) November 20, 2020
They were held on charges including “joining a terror group” and “spreading false news”, the EIPR said, and placed in pre-trial detention for 15 days.
Under Egyptian law, such procedures can be extended and last up to two years.
“The arrest of three human rights defenders in Egypt this week is a very worrying development that underscores the extreme vulnerability of civil society activists,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in a statement.
“We are very concerned that the targeting of human rights defenders and other activists … are having a profound chilling effect on an already weakened Egyptian civil society,” added spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani.
The OHCHR said the arrests “appear to have been carried out as retaliation” because they came after the EIPR hosted a meeting with 13 ambassadors and diplomats.
Similar concerns have been expressed by traditional allies of Egypt, including the United States and United Kingdom.
“Meeting with a wide range of interlocutors, including members of civil society, is an integral part of normal diplomatic practice in every country,” Irish ambassador Sean O Regan tweeted on Friday.
Ireland is gravely concerned about this and other arrests of EIPR staff members following their meeting with a group of Ambassadors. Meeting with a wide range of interlocutors, including members of civil society, is an integral part of normal diplomatic practice in every country. https://t.co/ZWW5SsaIW5
— Seán O Regan (@SeanOReganIRL) November 20, 2020
His Italian counterpart and other ambassadors sent a letter to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry calling for the release of the EIPR staff, Italian news agency Adnkronos reported on Friday.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also raised the issue with Shoukry, the Foreign Office said.
The US State Department said on Thursday that Washington was “deeply concerned”.
US President Donald Trump has in recent years stood firmly behind Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom he reportedly called “my favourite dictator,” but President-elect Joe Biden has signalled he will take a firmer line on human rights.
Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a potential pick in Biden’s incoming administration, tweeted on Friday that the arrests were “another disturbing example of Egypt’s crackdown on human rights activists”.
The arrest of 3 members of @EIPR leadership is another disturbing example of Egypt’s crackdown on human rights activists.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights holds officials accountable & enables democratic change. They & their work must be respected & protected.
— Senator Chris Coons (@ChrisCoons) November 20, 2020
Amnesty International also slammed the detentions in a Friday statement describing them as a “vicious reprisal campaign”.
“These arrests, the smear campaign against the organisation and the government’s baseless claim that EIPR operates illegally, show that this is a well-planned and concerted attack,” the London-based rights watchdog said.
“Accusing NGO staff of ‘joining a terrorist group’ is an assault on the organisation and the human rights values it represents,” it added.
Amnesty also called on countries whose representatives attended the meeting on November 3 which it said included the UK, Canada and Germany, “to break their silence”.
“This is a test for the international community,” said Philip Luther, the watchdog’s Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director.
Some Egyptian pro-government newspapers published extracts of charges against Ennarah nearly a day before they were revealed to his lawyers, raising fears among civil society that a well-coordinated government campaign to shutter the group had been under way.
There have been no immediate reactions from Egypt.
But on Wednesday, the foreign ministry had rejected criticism from France after Basheer’s arrest, with spokesman Ahmed Hafez accusing Paris of “meddling” in Egypt’s domestic affairs.
Rights groups estimate that some 60,000 detainees in Egypt are political prisoners.
These include activists, journalists, lawyers and academics arrested in a sweeping crackdown on dissent under el-Sisi.