A Cairo court acquitted on Thursday 43 defendants tried as part of the NGO foreign funding case, overturning a June 2013 sentence convicting them of operating unlicensed NGOs and receiving foreign funding with the intention of harming national security.
Following the issuing of the verdict, judge Mohamed al-Feqqi, who presided over Thursday’s South Cairo Criminal Court session, explains to Mada Masr that the Court of Cassation had ordered a retrial in April 2018 for the 16 defendants that appealed the verdict, as well as for the remaining defendants convicted in absentia, stating that today’s verdict was issued for all 43 defendants in the case, including those sentenced in absentia.
“Six years later, this is completely behind us. We moved on and tried to rebuild our lives, but this case was still hanging over our heads — especially those of us who remained in Egypt — in terms of professional relations and other things. Now we can properly turn the page,” Hafsa Halawa, a defendant who formerly worked for the National Democratic Institute and who appealed the one-year suspended sentence she received as part of the 2013 verdict, tells Mada Masr. “I’m very grateful for the people who kept [supporting us], especially those of us with no political access or exposure. It means the world.”
“I’m happy that our innocence has been proven. But so much damage has been done,” Nancy Okail, the former director of Freedom House’s Egypt program and another defendant in the case, who initially received a five-year prison term in absentia, tells Mada Masr. “This should have happened a long time ago. None of us have broken the law, and our human rights and democracy work was transparent and fully conducted with the knowledge of the government.”
The case dates back to 2011, when the Cabinet asked the Ministry of Justice to form a fact-finding committee to look into the foreign funding received by civil society groups in July. The committee solicited the help of the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, the Ministry of Social Solidarity, State Security Investigations Services, General Intelligence, the Interior Ministry’s Public Funds Investigation Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, completing its report in September.
The investigation was split into two parts: A case dealing with foreign organizations operating in Egypt, in which all defendants were acquitted on Thursday, and a second case addressing local organizations, which is still under review.
The committee then named over 30 foreign and local organizations it claimed were conducting activities of a “political, social, economic or charitable nature” without the appropriate licenses.
In December of that year, police forces raided the offices of 17 foreign NGOs operating in Egypt, detained their employees and seized their equipment. Shortly after, the prosecution referred 43 employees from these institutions to trial as part of Case 173/2011.
By March 2012, 17 foreign nationals implicated in the case had left the country, after being released on LE2 million bail each.
In June 2013, the Cairo Criminal Court convicted the 43 defendants in the case under Article 98(c)(1) of the Penal Code, which criminalizes the creation, establishment or management of an association, organization or institution of any kind, or a branch of an international organization, without a license. Eleven defendants received one-year suspended sentences, with five others receiving two-year sentences. Twenty-seven defendants were sentenced in absentia and received five-year prison sentences.
The court also ordered the closure of the NGOs operating in Egypt in which these defendants were employed, including the offices of four American organizations and one German organization: The International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Center for Journalists and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
In April 2018, the Court of Cassation accepted the appeals of 16 defendants and ordered a retrial for all defendants in the case. The retrial hearings began in July 2018.
Meanwhile, the case against a number of local NGOs is ongoing, with over a dozen human rights workers targeted, including executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid; founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hossam Bahgat; Egypt country director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Mohamed Zaree; director of the Nazra Center for Feminist Studies Mozn Hassan; Al-Nadeem co-founders Magdy Adly, Suzanne Fayyad and Aida Seif Al-Dawla; and Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance co-founder Azza Soliman. These, and others, have been interrogated in relation to this case, had their assets frozen or been banned from leaving Egypt, pending investigations into charges of receiving foreign funding with the aim of destabilizing national security. The individuals investigated as part of this second case have not been referred to trial, although the government has attempted to dismantle some of the organizations implicated in it.
“[Thursday’s] verdict is a strong recognition of innocence that merits an immediate lift on the travel bans and asset freezes imposed on Egyptian civil society members currently being prosecuted in the same case. The case should be closed in its entirety,” Okail says.
The case has seen heavy political pressure exerted on the Egyptian government. The foreign ministries of the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, as well as the United Nations and international rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have all denounced the government’s crackdown on civil society organizations in Egypt during the case.
In March 2013, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement on Egypt’s decision to reopen the case, saying, “This decision comes against a wider backdrop of arrests and intimidation of political opposition, journalists, civil society activists and cultural figures.” He added, “These steps run contrary to the universal principle of freedom of association and to the government of Egypt’s commitments to support the role of civil society in governance and development.”
Commenting on Thursday’s verdict, Halawa says that this moment “should be the start of the opening of a new discussion on civil society. We can’t take the pressure off amending the NGO law to make more space for civil society in general, or [stop] opening up questions of freedoms, including freedom of expression.”