Egypt released three staff members of a leading human rights organisation following a concerted international campaign to free them – including concern expressed by US President-elect Joe Biden’s team.
Police arrested the three on charges of “joining a terror group” and “spreading false news” after a public meeting with foreign ambassadors on November 3 to discuss human rights in the country.
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The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) wrote on Thursday its three staff “were let go directly from Tora prison. Unusual. They are now either home or on the way home”.
The arrests underscored the extent to which President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has gone in silencing dissent and independent organisation amid years of arrests and other forms of intimidation.
The government of el-Sisi, a US ally with deep economic ties to European countries, has been waging the heaviest crackdown on dissent in the Middle East nation’s modern history, targeting not only Islamist political opponents but also pro-democracy activists, journalists and online critics.
Independent local rights groups have largely stopped operating. The 18-year-old EIPR is the most prominent organisation of the few still active, continuing to work on documenting civil rights violations, prison conditions, sectarian violence, and discrimination against women and religious minorities.
Gasser, Karim and Basheer were let go directly from Tora prison. Unusual. They are now either home or on the way home.
— المبادرة المصرية للحقوق الشخصية (@EIPR) December 3, 2020
EIPR executive director Gasser Abdel-Razek, senior researcher Karim Ennarah, and office manager Mohamed Basheer – all detained within the same week but days apart – had been kept in pre-trial detention.
“After the submission of the necessary legal paperwork of registering the group as a non-profit organisation, the public prosecution has ordered the release of Gasser Abdel-Razek and members of the Initiative,” said a brief statement sent to the AFP news agency by a security and judicial source.
A fourth staff member, Patrick Zaky, was detained in February while on a visit to Cairo from Bologna where he was completing a Master’s degree. It is unclear whether he will also be released.
A new law regulating the work of civil society organisations was recently approved by Egypt’s cabinet after the arrests drew global condemnation including from allies such as Germany and France.
An international campaign drawing in celebrities and politicians urged Cairo to release the activists. Actresses Scarlett Johansson and Emma Thompson, as well as British comedian Stephen Fry, lent their support.
The United Nations urged Egypt to release them while the US State Department under outgoing President Donald Trump said it was “deeply concerned”.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for US secretary of state, tweeted last month “meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights”.
Share concern re. #Egypt's arrests of three employees of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights. https://t.co/hR5JtLcAYI
— Antony Blinken (@ABlinken) November 20, 2020
Rights groups estimate about 60,000 detainees in Egypt are political prisoners including secular activists, journalists, lawyers, and academics arrested in the ongoing crackdown on dissent under el-Sisi.
It was not immediately clear if the release of the three rights activists meant charges against them had been dropped. Prosecutors often free activists on bail but keep charges hanging over their heads. The crackdown on the group continues on another front as well, with prosecutors seeking to freeze EIPR’s assets.
The release order comes ahead of a high profile visit next week by el-Sisi to France, where he is to meet with President Emmanuel Macron. Rights groups have been calling on Macron – whose government is a major arms supplier to Egypt – to press el-Sisi to free the three and other activists.
The arrests last month came after ambassadors and senior diplomats from 13 Western countries met with EIPR for talks the group said “discussed ways to improve human rights conditions in Egypt”.