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HRW condemns Egypt NGO verdict

Human Rights Watch denounces Tuesday's conviction of 43 NGO workers, calls for amendments to draft NGO law

Ahram Online , Wednesday 5 Jun 2013
NGO Trial
Friends of Egyptian suspects react as they listen to the judge's verdict at a court room during a case against foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Cairo June 4, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned Tuesday's conviction of 43 non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers as a violation of basic internationally protected rights and the rule of law.

The convictions were for working illegally in Egypt and receiving foreign funding without permission.

"These are unjust convictions based on an unjust law," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.

A court in Cairo sentenced twenty-seven defendants tried in absentia, including at least 15 US citizens, to five-year jail sentences. Eleven received one-year suspended sentences, and five received two-year sentences.

Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute, the only American defendant to stay in Egypt until the trial, was given a two-year sentence. He left Egypt after the verdict on his lawyers' advice.

The court also ordered the closure of five foreign NGOs involved in the case and the seizure of their funds. These are the US-based Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ), and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS).

The verdict came at a time when the Shura Council (upper house of parliament which currently holds legislative powers) is mulling draft legislation which has been condemned for restricting civil society groups.

The bill was submitted by President Mohamed Morsi after an earlier draft by the Muslim Brotherhood was condemned as more repressive than its Mubarak-era predecessor.

Rights campaigners, both local and Western, say the presidency's draft falls well short of demands for freedom of association.

"What's particularly disheartening is that the new draft NGO law the Morsi government has proposed reflects the same suspicion of independent organisations that was the driving force behind the trial," said Whitson.

Critics say the draft law, if passed unchanged, will allow the government full discretion to object to both foreign and domestic funding, withhold licenses and broadly interfere in the internal governance of independent groups.

HRW urged President Morsi to amend the draft law instead of forcing through a legislation seen as a serious threat to the operation of civil society groups.

"If President Morsi wishes to distance himself from the legacy of this politically motivated trial, he should amend the new draft NGO law in line with international standards," HRW said.

Beginning in late 2011, a crackdown on NGOs, in which 17 NGO offices were raided, was spearheaded by the international cooperation minister, Faiza Abul-Naga, during the period of military rule after the revolution. These included four US-based groups and one German organisation.

The trial, which caused a period of high tension between Egypt and Washington, began in February 2012.

Cairo tried to defuse the crisis by allowing some activists to leave the country, including Sam LaHood, the son of US transport secretary Ray LaHood.

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