Rights Groups Slam UN on Planned Egypt Conference as Sissi Ratifies NGO Bill

Thirteen Egyptian human rights organizations ask United Nations to hold conference on torture in a country where 'the bare minimum of human rights is respected'

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi addresses the chamber after he was sworn in for a second four-year term in Cairo, Egypt, June 2, 2018.
,AP

Several Egyptian rights groups urged a UN agency to rule out Egypt as the host of its conference on torture because of the country's dismal human rights record.

The development came as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ratified Wednesday a controversial bill regulating the work of non-governmental groups in the country, a law that activists and civil society groups have widely criticized as oppressive.

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But earlier this week, OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville said the conference was postponed following criticism from Egyptian rights groups. He did not say for when it was postponed.

Thirteen local rights groups said in a statement Wednesday that holding the conference in Egypt would contribute to the government's "whitewashing attempts" and urged the OHCHR to select a country where "the bare minimum of human rights is respected."

Meanwhile, the bill ratified by el-Sissi and announced in the official gazette, introduces a set of amendments to Egypt's notorious law regulating NGOs and their work in the country. It was approved last month by parliament but required el-Sissi's ratification.

Although the new legislation partially eases the bureaucratic process of establishing an NGO and eliminates jail penalties for violations of funding rules, activists still describe it as restrictive and a window-dressing attempt by el-Sissi's government.

In recent years, Egypt has tightened its grip on rights organizations by prosecuting their leaders over receiving foreign funding, barring them from travel and freezing their assets — measures that triggered wide international criticism.

A famous case against NGOs in Egypt dated back to just months after the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, when Egypt's military claimed that protests against its direct rule between February 2011 and June 2012 were funded by foreigners. At the time, it ordered raids on more than a dozen offices of rights and freedom advocacy groups, seizing files and computers.

A total of 43 NGO workers, including German and U.S. nationals, were charged with illegally received funding for their local and foreign NGOs. The 43 were convicted by a lower court in 2013 but none spent time in jail. The only three who received prison terms — up to three years — were tried in absentia. Last December, the 43 were finally acquitted of the charges.