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6 May 2013

Front Line Defenders condemns conviction of human rights workers and calls for verdicts to be overturned

Front Line Defenders strongly condemns the sentencing of 43 NGO staff members to prison terms ranging from 1 to 5 years on foot of charges of “using foreign funding to foment unrest.”

The defendants were employed by 4 United States and 1 German organisation. Five of the defendants were sentenced to 2 years in prison, eleven were sentenced to 1 year suspended and a further 27 were tried in absentia and sentenced to 5 years in prison. This was an automatic verdict given that they did not present themselves before the court. Additionally, the trial judge ordered the closure of the offices of all five organisations and the confiscation of their assets.

Front Line Defenders is calling on the government of Egypt to overturn the convictions and release all those currently in detention. The prosecutions are a clear breach of the right to Freedom of Association and Freedom of Assembly.

“The trial of these 43 defendants and the ongoing investigations into the activities of dozens of other organisations is a clear attempt by the Government of President Morsi to restrict the legitimate work of human rights defenders and NGOs and to stifle dissent” said Front Line Defenders Deputy Director, Andrew Anderson

The prosecution was based legislation from the repressive legal framework of the Mubarak era including the Law on Associations and penal code provisions on association. Under this system NGOs have to apply for registration, a process which can drag on for many years. All four organisations had applied for registration prior to the raids on their offices and the law states that if they do not get a response inside 60 days then registration is considered granted.

The workers were charged under article 98(c)(1) of Egypt’s penal code, which states: “Anyone who creates or establishes or manages an association or organisation or institution of any kind of an international character or a branch of an international organisation without a license in the Egyptian Republic shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of not more than 6 months or with a fine of 500 EGP [US$82].” The defendants were charged with operating unlawfully and with receiving foreign funds without permission.

Front Line Defenders believes that the charges are purely political in nature and are designed to intimidate human rights defenders and block the work of their organisations. The verdicts coincide with the start of a debate in Egypt's Shura Council, or upper house, of a new draft NGO law which many fear will be used to further restrict the legitimate activities of NGOs and human rights defenders.