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UN experts call for release of Egyptian human rights defenders jailed after meeting diplomats

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GENEVA (27 November 2020) – UN human rights experts* today condemned Egypt for the arbitrary arrest and detention of three human rights defenders from the same organisation, apparently in retaliation for discussing human rights issues with foreign ambassadors.

“It is absolutely abhorrent to retaliate against human rights defenders from one of Egypt’s last functioning human rights NGOs, simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression by discussing Egypt’s human rights situation,” the experts said.

“These arrests underline the very grave risks human rights defenders face in Egypt every day while carrying out their legitimate work,” the UN experts said. “They are only the latest steps in an escalating campaign against the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and are part of a broader move to limit civic space and target those who operate within it.”

Within days of a meeting with 13 foreign ambassadors and diplomats on 3 November, three EIPR officials were arrested by security forces: Executive Director Gasser Abdel Razek; Karim Ennarah, director of criminal justice, and Mohammad Basheer, administrative manager. They face terrorism and public security charges.

Authorities have targeted the organisation since 2016, when the bank accounts of former EIPR director and founder Hossam Bahgat were frozen and he was banned from leaving the country. In February 2020, EIPR’s gender rights researcher, Patrick Zaki, was arrested, and remains in pre-trial detention on charges relating to terrorism and incitement.

All four men are being held in the Tora prison complex just south of Cairo, with concerning reports that at least one of them is being held in solitary confinement. The experts called for charges against all four defenders to be dropped, for them to be released immediately and unconditionally, and for authorities to cease targeting Hossam Bahgat and EIPR.

Promotion and defence of human rights should not be regarded as terrorism, the experts said, referring to the charges brought against the three men arrested this month: joining a terrorist organization, committing a crime involving the funding of terrorism, and broadcasting false news and statements on the internet on personal accounts that undermine public security and harm the national interest. “We deeply regret that despite several calls from the United Nations human rights mechanisms and the international community, Egypt continues to use counter-terrorism legislation to target civil society,” they said.

“This vilification of human rights defenders as a threat to society is not only harmful to human rights defenders, but to all members of Egyptian society,” said the experts. “Criminalising those who defend human rights – and those who bring to light violations of human rights – undermines the sanctity of those rights.”

“Human rights defenders and civil society activists must never be penalised for their efforts to ensure the protection of the rights of others,” the experts said. “These efforts must not be regarded as terrorism or a public threat. Quite the opposite: We should protect and value them for their contributions.”

ENDS

The Experts: Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and association; Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression; the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances: Mr. Tae-Ung Baik (Chair-Rapporteur), Mr. Henrikas Mickevičius (Vice Chair), Ms. Aua Baldé, Mr. Bernard Duhaime, and Mr. Luciano Hazan; and Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and Ms. Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page: Egypt

For more information and media requests, please contact Adriana Zarraluqui (+41 22 917 9965 / azarraluqui@ohchr.org) or write to defenders@ohchr.org.

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