The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) has emerged as the latest target in the state’s crackdown against civil society groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and rights associations.
A statement issued on Wednesday, co-signed by 22 local rights organizations, reported that the CIHRS is being investigated by a committee from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, at the request of judicial authorities who monitor the foreign funding of civil society groups.
This committee dispatched by the Ministry of Social Solidarity has been tasked with examining whether the CIHRS is in compliance with new stipulations added to the 2002 Civil Associations Law — specifically concerning the receipt of foreign funding — which were issued last year.
According to the statement, this probe may be the state’s way of responding to a speech critical of rights violations by Egypt’s current government, which CIHRS Director, Bahey al-Din Hassan, delivered to the Human Rights Committee of the European Parliament on May 28.
Hassan’s speech is said to have touched upon the issues of judicial independence in Egypt (or as he claimed, the lack thereof), increased restrictions upon civil society, and the harassment of rights activists, amongst other violations.
The statement added: “Instead of responding to these criticisms, the government has apparently decided to retaliate against the institute.”
Lawyer Mohamed al-Ansari told Mada Masr that this may be an attempt to associate the CIHRS with the issue of unauthorized foreign funding.
“There is no official investigation being undertaken, as of yet,” said Ansari. “The committee [from the Ministry of Social Justice] may be looking into CIHRS funding. However, they have declined to inform us of any official investigation or official charges against us.”
The lawyer explained that it is yet to be seen whether this ministry-appointed committee will press charges, or if these actions are just a slap on the wrist aimed to intimidate the organization.
Ansari added that the CIHRS is “a legitimate organization which abides by the provisions of domestic law. It is accountable and pays its taxes to the Egyptian state.”
On September 21 last year, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued Presidential Decree 128 (2014), which stipulates sentences ranging from life imprisonment to execution, along with fines reaching up to LE500,000 for those receiving illegal foreign funding that threatens Egypt’s national security.
According to the statement by rights organizations, the Egyptian state’s actions against NGOs are “politicized,” and have “led to the closure of some five international organizations operating in Egypt,” along with sentences (which have been suspended) against NGO staffers, ranging from one to five years imprisonment .
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also come under fire from the Egyptian state this week.
In response to a report pertaining to rights violations committed under Sisi’s government during his first year as president, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denounced HRW on Tuesday for allegedly “propagating lies” and “supporting terrorism.”
Earlier, in August 2014, HRW’s executives Kenneth Roth and Sarah Leah Whitson were both banned from entering Egypt through Cairo Airport. Two months later, a member of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Ashraf Mikhail, was also denied passage through Cairo Airport.
According to Ansari, Egyptian rights activists and civil society figures are being targeted more directly.
He pointed to the case of Lawyer Negad al-Borai who helped formulate a new draft law against torture in March, only to find himself being formally investigated in May, after being summoned by the North Giza Court.
According to Wednesday’s joint statement, CIHRS chief Hassan has repeatedly received death threats for his work in the field of human rights.
Within the span of just two months this year, the Ministry of Social Solidarity has shutdown at least 380 NGOs — which are reportedly linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — pursuant to judicial rulings.
Several officials from this ministry have repeatedly claimed that they are not cracking down on Egyptian NGOs or civil society, but rather attempting to end the ambiguous legal standing of certain organizations and halting financial violations of the law.
Nonetheless, restrictions on NGO funding have led several independent human rights organizations to relocate their offices beyond Egypt, to downsize their staff, and/or work with smaller budgets.
Following 20 years of work, the CIHRS decided in December 2014 to transfer its regional and international rights program to Tunisia, while keeping its Egyptian rights program operating from Cairo. CIHRS reported this relocation was based on “ongoing threats to human rights organizations and the declaration of war on civil society.”