Freedom House condemns in the strongest possible terms the conviction of 43 NGO workers, including six currently with Freedom House and a former staff member, after a government-led witch-hunt intended to strangle civil society activity and limit free expression in post-revolutionary Egypt. As evidence of that, the judge in the case also ordered the permanent closure of all the organizations involved.
The charges against the 43 NGO staff, made up of Egyptian and foreign staff including 17 Americans, were the culmination of a months-long campaign of intimidation by authorities, starting with holdovers from the Mubarak era and continuing under the interim military rule and under the present government; many in the Egyptian media also fed into this campaign. After raids on 10 NGO offices that included other American and German organizations as well as several Egyptian civil society groups in December 2011, the workers were indicted on charges of operating an organization and receiving funds from a foreign government without a license.
“This whole case was a disgrace from the very beginning, and the verdict makes a mockery of the Egyptian judicial process,” said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House. “It is motivated purely by corrupt and anti-democratic behavior and a determination to shut down civil society. None of those indicted did anything wrong. They were simply working with Egyptians to help them realize their dream of a free Egypt, and instead have been made scapegoats for a government and judiciary who have betrayed the aspirations of the January 25, 2011 revolution.”
Under a Mubarak-era law, NGOs receiving foreign funding were subject to registration and review by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and other entities, but this was typically used as a way to stymie civil society activity, with the registration process often dragging on indefinitely. Despite that, Freedom House had formally submitted its registration application three days before its office was raided and after working with Egyptian authorities for months to ensure compliance with all legal requirements.
“I am deeply disappointed by today’s verdict but, unfortunately, not surprised,” said Nancy Okail, director of Egypt programs at Freedom House, and one of the convicted defendants. “President Morsi’s government has continued Mubarak’s tactics of using threats, intimidation, and the arbitrary exercise of government power to suppress free expression and association in Egypt. How can the international community believe he is committed to democracy when he has shut down groups and jailed staff who were helping Egyptians participate in shaping their country’s future?”
Since the raids in December 2011, all of these groups have essentially been unable to function in the country, and the case has had a chilling effect on civil society activity in general, with reports that hundreds more Egyptian NGOs are being investigated.
The current government has proposed a new NGO law that would impose even more restrictions and harm civil society than the previous law under Mubarak.
Despite the fact that the lower body of Egyptian parliament has been disbanded, the Muslim Brotherhood is intent on moving the law through the Shura Council, also set to be disbanded, with little opportunity for public comment.
“The United States government and the U.S. Congress should make clear to President Morsi that the continued persecution of civil society activists is a grave breach of his stated commitment to a democratic transition,” said Charles W. Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House, and a convicted defendant. “We expect to appeal this case. Meanwhile, the government should end repressive practices including pulling its support for the oppressive new NGO law being considered by the Shura Council.”
Egypt is rated Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2013, Freedom House’s annual global survey of political rights and civil liberties, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2013 and Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2012.