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Egypt: Human rights worker arrested after meeting with European diplomats

EIPR's Mohamed Basheer has been charged with 'terrorism' and 'spreading false news'
Mohamed Basheer was arrested days after a meeting between his organisation and European diplomats in Cairo on 3 November (Supplied by the Committee for Justice)

Security forces detained a manager of a prominent rights group in Cairo on Saturday night after he met with European diplomats, which the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) described as an "unprecedented escalation".

According to the EIPR, security forces arrested its administrative manager, Mohamed Basheer, after midnight, and held him for 12 hours until he appeared at the Supreme State Security Prosecution in Cairo's Fifth Settlement district.

Along with being questioned regarding the organisation’s latest publications and legal aid work, the EIPR said that the prosecution’s investigations into Basheer were focused on a meeting held on 3 November with a number of foreign ambassadors and diplomats, with whom he discussed human rights in Egypt and around the world. 

According to the Swiss embassy in Cairo, 14 European diplomats visited the EIPR in November for a meeting on the status of civil society in the country.

The EIPR denounced Basheer's detention as "the latest episode in the ongoing crackdown that aims to intimidate and scare legal and human rights professionals as well as social and political activists".

“This cannot be seen outside of the general authoritarian and repressive context, which is dealing one blow after another to the most basic of rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution and international norms and agreements,” it said. 

Basheer was charged with: “Joining a terrorist organisation with knowledge of its purposes"; "using a personal account on the internet to spread false information that undermines public security"; "committing one of the crimes of funding terrorism"; and "broadcasting false news and statements that undermines public security and harming national interest”, the statement added.

'This cannot be seen outside of the general authoritarian and repressive context, which is dealing one blow after another to the most basic of rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution and international norms and agreements'

- Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

No evidence was cited by the prosecution to support the charges. It decided to hold Basheer for 15 days pending investigations into the charges in case no 855/2020, where several other human rights advocates are being tried, including lawyers Mohammed el-Baqer and Mahinour el-Masry. The case also includes journalist Islam Mohamed and political science professor Hazem Hosny.

The interior ministry has yet to comment on Basheer’s arrest, which comes days after the government’s release of hundreds of political prisoners held in pre-trial detention since last year on similar charges.

Egyptian authorities are accused of detaining more than 60,000 political prisoners since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted his democratically elected predecessor Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 military coup. 

Many of those detained include government critics and civil society workers, who have been increasingly targeted since a controversial NGO law was ratified by Sisi in 2017. The law was criticised by civil society activists as “the worst in history”. 

EIPR has been among the victims of the Sisi government's crackdown on rights organisations. In 2016, its founder Hossam Bahgat was banned from travel and had his financial assets frozen over his work. In February, Patrick George Zaky, a researcher for EIPR, was detained, tortured, and later faced charges of "calling for protests without permission," "spreading false news," and "inciting violence and terrorism".

Sisi has denied holding political prisoners in the country, while Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said last week at a press conference alongside his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian that "there is no arbitrary detention, there is only detention according to the law" in Egypt.

Last month, over 200 European lawmakers sent a letter to Sisi, publicly denouncing his government’s continued human rights abuses as a threat to the country's security and stability.

The letter urged Sisi to release human rights defenders who are held in pre-trial detention, particularly with the health risks associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.