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Egypt releases three human rights advocates after international outcry

Arrests of top advocates at Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights drew rebuke from rights groups and Western governments
Rights advocates Gasser Abdelrazek, Karim Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer were released on Thursday
Rights advocates Gasser Abdelrazek, Karim Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer were released on Thursday (AFP/File photo)

Egypt has released three prominent rights defenders whose detention last month over communicating with foreign diplomats prompted rebukes from Western governments and rights organisations.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) announced the release of its advocates Gasser Abdelrazek, Karim Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer on Thursday, but it was not immediately clear if they were still facing charges.

"Gasser, Karim and Basheer were let go directly from Tora prison. Unusual. They are now either home or on the way home," the group said in a tweet.

Tora is a notorious prison in southern Cairo that houses tens of thousands of political prisoners.

Abdelrazek is the director of EIPR; Ennarah serves as the group's director of criminal justice, and Basheer is a manager at the organisation. They were all arrested within days of each other.

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The arrests sparked rare criticism from the Trump administration - a chief ally of the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The US State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said last month that it was "deeply concerned" by the arrests of the activists.

"The United States believes that all people should be free to express their beliefs and advocate peacefully," the agency said in a tweet.

Tony Blinken, a top adviser to President-elect Joe Biden - who would later be named secretary of state in the incoming administration - also denounced the detention of the activists.

"Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights," he said.

International 'concern'

Several European countries also denounced the activists' detention.

A spokesperson for the UK Foreign Office told MEE in a statement last month that London was concerned about the arrests.

"The foreign secretary has raised their case directly with his Egyptian counterpart," the spokesperson said. "Human rights defenders should be able to work without fear of arrest or reprisals, wherever they are."

The trio was detained after EIPR hosted a meeting on human rights in Egypt at its office in Cairo. 

Diplomats from the UK, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland had attended the event.

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Hossam Bahgat, EIPR's founder, celebrated the freeing of the activists and appeared to credit the pressure campaign for their release.

"I can confirm my friends and EIPR colleagues Gasser, Basheer and Karim have been released and are home which I guess means we (and you) managed to #FreeEIPRstaff," Bahgat said in a social media post.

Since ascending to power after ousting the democratically elected government of President Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 coup, Sisi has embarked on an uncompromising campaign of repression. 

According to rights groups, the Egptian government has jailed more than 60,000 dissidents - charges that Cairo denies.

Despite the outcry of rights defenders, US President Donald Trump has deepened ties with Sisi, referring to him as his "favourite dictator".