UN experts alarmed over systematic targeting of civil society

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On 28th September 2018, several UN experts released a statement referring to the deteriorating space for civil society space in Egypt. The statement which included signatories Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said:

“No one should be punished simply for expressing political dissent in line with universal human rights standards...And all detainees, no matter the charges against them, must be granted immediate and confidential access to their legal counsels.”

The statement refers to the cases of several HRDs including Amal Fathy, Shadi al-Ghazali Harb, Mohamed Ibrahim Radwan (also known as “Mohamed Oxygen”), Wael Abbas, and Haytham Mohamadein. Many of these cases were previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor. All of these human rights defenders have been held in detention for the past five months and face lengthy jail terms if convicted. Amal Fathy, was recently sentenced to two years in jail after posting a video on social media detailing her experiences of sexual harassment and criticising the government's lack of action to protect women. Despite the disproportionate sentence, Fathy still faces further charges. Many civil society groups suspect these activists have been targeted for their work on corruption, torture, extra-judicial killings, and women’s rights. The UN experts called on the Egyptian authorities to ensure a fair, impartial and public trial in accordance with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law.

Another wave of arrests in early November 2018 triggered further alarm. On 1st November 2018, eighteen people were arrested in a series of raids across Egypt. Those arrested include a number of human rights lawyers and activists. They include: Hoda Abdelmoniem, Mohamed Abu Horira, Aisha Al-Shater, Samia Nassif, Sahar Hathut, Riwaya Al-Shafai, Alia Ismail, Iman Al-Qadi, Marwa Ahmad Madbouli, Baha Oda, Shadi Abu Al-Nagha, Tareq Al-Salkawy, Ahmed Al-Hadhbi, Mohamed Al-Ahadhbi, Ismail Shahat, Salwy Abdel Karim, Osama Ibrahim and Ibrahim Ata. 

While the reason for their detention remains unclear, a number of the arrested are affiliated with the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), a group known for its work documenting enforced disappearances and the use of the death penalty. The group is well-known for sharing information with international CSOs, such as Human Rights Watch. In addition, the ECRF's executive director, Ezzat Ghoneim and Azouz Mahgoub have been have been missing since mid-September 2018. Latest reports from the ground note that the number of arrested has increased. At the time of writing no further information was available on where the activists are being held or their health. 

In response, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling for the activists' release. According to the Egyptian “Stop Enforced Disappearance” independent campaign, authorities have forcibly disappeared at least 230 people between August 2017 and August 2018. The latest wave of disappearances increasingly targeting journalists and rights activists. The situation is made worse by Egypt's systemic use of torture against detainees. In light of this, there are growing concerns over the welfare of the disappeared. 

The situation for the LGBTI community in Egypt has also recently been in the spotlight. On the 25th September 2018, The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) released a statement highlighting the crackdown on LGBTI people in Egypt over the past five years. The timing of the statement coincided with the one year anniversary of the rainbow flag incident at a concert in Cairo in 2017. The incident started when people at a Mashrou Leila concert started symbolically waving the rainbow flag. While symbolic, Egyptian authorities promptly rounded up eleven people for “debauchery” and “inciting debauchery”. Seventy five people were arrested over the following month in crackdown against LGBTI people and rights activists. The band, Mashrou Leila are known to champion LGBTI rights. In a statement, EIPR commented on the situation for the LGBTI community in Egypt: 

"One year after raising the rainbow flag incident at Mashrou’ Leila concert and the subsequent security campaign, and five years after the increasing systematic targeting of gay men and transgender women or those suspected to be so, that this approach in dealing with consensual relationships between adults is an explicit violation of a number of fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution and in the international human rights instruments ratified by successive Egyptian governments, primarily the right to non-discrimination, the right to privacy, the right to a fair trial and the freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment."

Expression

Of late, Egyptian authorities have become particularly sensitive to criticism. On 14th October 2018, Egyptian authorities arrested Abdel Khaleq Farouk and Ibrahim al-Khateeb. Abdel Khaleq Farouk, a economic researcher had recently published a book which was critical of Egypt's economic policy. Ibrahim al-Khateeb owns the press which was printing the title. Farouk's analysis criticised the government's management of human resources and management of government agencies. During their arrest, Egyptian authorities also seized 200 copies of the book to prevents its release. Both individuals were interrogated at Shorouk Police Station and were charged with "spreading false information". Despite this, both Abdel Khalek Farouk and Ibrahim al-Khateeb were released on 29th October 2018, after appealing their 15-day detention order. The court ordered their release on the condition they provide their address. Their arrest epitomises the Egyptian authorities zero-tolerance policy to dissent throughout 2018. 

On 23rd October 2018, Egyptian authorities enacted a new law governing the electronic licensing of websites. Online outlets now must have a government issued license before publishing content. Law 180 gives the Supreme Council for Media Regulation the power to grant and revoke licenses for media outlets. Gaining a license can also be expensive, as the application costs approximately 50,000 Egyptian Ppounds (€2,450). Civil society groups have drawn attention to the law's lack of safeguards and potential for misuse. In a statement on 3rd November 2018, Reporters Without Borders referred to the law as extortion:

"This law is tantamount to extortion because journalists now have to pay if they want to work. The implementation of this very coercive media law has a clear political objective – to silence the last independent voices. We are facing the probable extinction or exile of Egypt’s last independent media.

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Egyptian authorities have already blocked at least 500 websites this year. Those outlets who have already been banned stand little chance of gaining a license. Similarly, the chilling effect of the law is already evident. One website, launched by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) to document human rights violations in Egypt has already stopped operating. Meanwhile, the website Katib announced it would not apply for a licence as it had already been banned by Egyptian authorities. ANHRI stated it could not afford to apply for a licence as there were no guarantees it would be successful.