Investigative journalist Hossam Baghat (C) leaves a courtroom at Cairo Criminal Court in Cairo, Egypt, March 24, 2016. (Photo by AP)
An Egyptian court has upheld an earlier decision to freeze the assets of five prominent human rights defenders and three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as the government in Cairo keeps up its policy of repression.
The court issued the ruling on Saturday accusing the defendants of illegally receiving foreign funds and using them to damage the country’s national security.
The assets freeze applies to Hossam Bahgat, Gamal Eid, Bahey el-Din Hassan, Mostafa al-Hassan and Abdel Hafez al-Tayel.
It further includes Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and the Egyptian Centre for the Right to Education.
The initial probe into foreign funding was launched following the 2011 popular uprising that led to the overthrow of former dictator Hosni Mubarak. The investigation has targeted civil society groups allegedly suspected of plotting against the North African country.
Under the probe, 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO staff went on trial in 2013 and were handed jail terms of up to five years for working illegally.
European Union External Action Service criticized Saturday’s court decision in a statement, saying it violates human rights.
“The increased pressure on independent Egyptian civil society, in particular human rights organizations and defenders, is not in line with Egypt’s commitments to promote and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms as guaranteed by its Constitution,” the statement read.
Amnesty International also denounced the ruling as “a shameless ploy to silence human rights activism.”
Human Rights Watch also complained that the individuals, whose assets were frozen, may face prosecution and prison terms of up to life, equivalent to 25 years in Egypt.“Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country's most prominent independent human rights defenders,” Human Right Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson said.
In an election after Mubarak’s ouster, Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi was elected as Egyptian president. Morsi was later ousted in a military coup led by former military chief and current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in July 2013.
The government led by Sisi has been cracking down on any opposition. Hundreds of Morsi supporter have been killed in clashes with Egyptian security forces over the past few years.
Court jails 17 over island rallies
In another development on Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced 17 people to six months in prison.
They are accused of taking part in protests in denunciation of a maritime border deal signed with Saudi Arabia that would hand over the control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Riyadh.
The ruling issued by the court in western Cairo could be appealed.
Egyptians shout slogans against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during a demonstration in Cairo on April 15, 2016, against the government’s decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. (Photo by AP)
On April 9, Sisi announced that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir fall within the territorial waters of Saudi Arabia as stipulated in a maritime border agreement signed between Cairo and Riyadh the previous day.
However, legal experts and opposition figures cast doubt on the legitimacy of the deal, arguing that relinquishing authority over Egyptian territory is unconstitutional.
Critics accused Sisi of surrendering Egyptian territory in return for Saudi money, with reports saying that Cairo is receiving USD 20 billion in aid from Riyadh in return for agreeing to the handover of sovereignty.
In June, an administrative court “cancelled the signing” of the controversial agreement with Saudi Arabia and said the islands “remain Egyptian.”
The case is still being investigated in Egyptian courts and the parliament has not verified it yet.