A Cairo court upholds the asset freeze motion for rights lawyer Azza Soliman and the Lawyers for Justice and Peace company she heads, adjourning its decision on asset freezes for Mozn Hassan and Nazra for Feminist Studies, and Mohamed Zaree and Atef Hafez and the Arab Organization for Criminal Reform.
There is strong support in court from friends, colleagues and lawyers for the defendants. Lawyer Taher Abul Nasr defends Hafez, and Ahmed Ragheb represents Hassan and Nazra. Zaree does not have a lawyer present.
In defense of the Arab Organization for Criminal Reform
Abul Nasr contests the legality of the asset freeze motion for Hafez, former colleague of Zaree, as his name was not included in the original request submitted to the prosecution by the investigative judge. The public prosecutor used his authority to add Hafez’s name to the request, Abul Nasr tells the court. The law of criminal procedures entitles the public prosecution to request the asset freezes of defendants based on its own investigations, or a request from the investigative magistrate in charge of the case, he explains.
The prosecution has “gone beyond what was requested from it according to the investigative judge’s request … which was limited to the freezing of the assets of the Arab Organization for Criminal Reform and its director Mohamed Zaree,” Abul Nasr says, adding that his client was included on the list as Zaree’s colleague at the time the organization was founded, despite him having left three years ago.
“When does one become a suspect?” Abul Nasr asks, explaining the law states that the assets of a defendant can only be frozen when they have been informed of the charges against them and they have been given the opportunity to respond, none of which, he adds, took place in Hafez’s case.
Since the NGO foreign funding case was reopened earlier this year, none of the defendants in the case has been interrogated, except human rights lawyer Azza Soliman, nor have their names or charges been officially announced to date.
“Other than nonspecific rhetoric by the investigating body, the investigative judge’s [asset freeze] request states that the company of the Arab Organization for Criminal Reform is not registered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity, despite its civil society activism,” Abul Nasr states, adding that the organization is a law firm, and as such should not be registered with the ministry.
“My client has been accused of receiving funds from abroad with the aim of using the funds himself for harming national security … Who said anything about taking the funds for himself? Where is the evidence for this? Have any complaints been filed in this regard? What is the material act that resulted in harm to national security? Does the court know of such evidence?” he tells the court, adding, “We are being taken to court based on words without information or evidence.”
The investigative judge considers bank transfers to be a crime in itself, the lawyer asserts, even though there are no laws criminalizing the transfer of funds to private or company accounts. The potentially punishable act is what is done with these funds, he says, explaining that there were no details to this effect in the investigative judge’s request.
The request memo referred to a technical report from the tax department, which claimed that the Arab Organization for Criminal Reform does not have a tax file, to which Abul Nasr then submits the company’s tax records to the court, indicating that the organization paid its taxes until December 2015.
Reading from the request from the “civil society magistrate,” Abul Nasr says that a delegate from the Social Solidarity Ministry went to the office of the Lawyers for Justice and Peace company and found it closed. This company is headed by lawyer Azza Soliman not Atef Hafez, he points out.
“I confirm that my client does not have a bank account, nor any property. He is a lawyer who works in a difficult profession, and has not made any other gains from it,” Abul Nasr says, adding, “The issue here is that a citizen has been subjected to accusations because of his profession, because he stands up in court defending the rights of individuals.”
In defense of Nazra for Feminist Studies
In his defense of Mozn Hassan and Nazra, lawyer Ahmed Ragheb states that the asset freeze request involves three parties: his client, Nazra for Feminist Studies and the Nazra Company for Research.
Ragheb opens with a declartion of support for Abul Nasr’s statements in defense of Hafez, adding that Hassan was not questioned regarding any of the accusations made against her. “She has not seen them, neither was she given the opportunity to provide evidence to prove her innocence,” he says.
Ragheb also mentions that the investigative judge for the NGO foreign funding case, Hesham Abdel Megid, summoned and questioned three Nazra employees last March. Hassan was overseas at the time, but returned as soon as she learned of the developments. She was summoned for questioning, but Abdel Megid postponed it indefinitely.
“My client could have remained abroad. If she seeks to tarnish the reputation of Egypt or harm the country’s interests, she could have done so abroad. However, she decided to return and respond to the summons,” Ragheb asserts.
The defense lawyer reminds the court of the essentials of the law: that the claimant should provide evidence based on the constitutional principle that he or she is innocent until proven guilty. This principle has been reversed in this case, Ragheb says, as, “We are being charged until we prove our innocence.”
The request to freeze the Nazra association’s funds is against the law, Ragheb maintains, as it is specifically about the assets of individuals. “The association is not the property of my client, even if she chairs its board. These are the funds of members of the association,” he adds.
The NGO law has 42 provisions that describe the requisite procedures that must be followed if an organization violates the law, including its dissolution. However, the investigative judge did not follow procedure, Ragheb argues.
He contests accusations the organization illegally received a grant from the American Fund for illegitimate purposes, and hands the court a portfolio including correspondence from the Social Solidarity Ministry agreeing to the association’s receipt of the grant. He also provides the court with the organization’s budgets, which were also submitted to the ministry, he says, and were not sent back with any legal misdemeanors.
Regarding the court’s accusation the Nazra association does not have a tax file, Ragheb replies, “associations are not expected to have tax records.”
The Nazra Company for Research has been inactive since 2014, and fulfilled all its legal commitments in 2015, Ragheb declares, submitting legal documents to this effect that prove the payment of necessary taxes.
“The investigative judge’s asset freeze request confuses the company with the association and does not clarify which of the figures mentioned in it work for which branch,” he explains, adding that there are no accounts holding the foreign currencies mentioned in the memo.
“My client is one of the most prominent women’s rights defenders. This is neither a crime, nor something to be ashamed of. She is against violence against women in the public space; why should this harm national security or Egypt’s reputation? On the contrary, the state itself has previously sentenced individuals in cases of sexual assault, and has established a department to combat violence against women. What my client is doing is neither shameful nor a crime, it is something we should be proud of, and that honors this country. We should not take her to court,” Ragheb declares.
He hands the court a letter detailing Hassan’s receipt of the Right to Livelihood award this year, as well as a number of articles about his client and her work.
He concludes: “What is happening is a punishment for a legitimate act, which is defending women’s rights and human rights in general. This punishment uses legal and media tools, as well as the defamation and demonization of some of the most noble and sincere people in this country.”
Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla