In Egypt, the executive director of the country’s leading human rights group has been arrested as part of an unprecedented crackdown on activists and journalists. Gasser Abdel-Razek was arrested at his home just days after two other staffers for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were also arrested. The move signals a major escalation of repression from the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has imprisoned thousands of people since he came to power after the 2013 overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi. “These arrests are a huge blow to civil society in Egypt,” says Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent and reporter for Mada Masr, the country’s last independent media outlet. “It has really sent shockwaves throughout the community here.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. We end today’s show in Egypt, where the executive director of the leading human rights group in the country was arrested Thursday night in an unprecedented crackdown. Gasser Abdel-Razek was arrested at his home just days after two other staffers for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights were also arrested. The move signals a major escalation of repression from the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has imprisoned thousands of activists and journalists since he came to power after the 2013 overthrow of the late President Mohamed Morsi. Criminal justice director Karim Ennarah and office manager Mohamed Basheer are the two other members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who have been arrested. They’re being held on terrorism charges. The arrests come just after the human rights group met with a group of foreign ambassadors and diplomats in Cairo earlier this month to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt and abroad.
For more, we go to Cairo, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s also a reporter for Mada Masr, the country’s last independent media outlet.
Sharif, thanks for joining us again. Talk about what’s happening and the significance of the arrest of these human rights leaders.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, over the past several years, authorities have severely targeted the activities of civil society in Egypt, especially those working on human rights. And EIPR was really one of the last to continue operating. And their work is crucial. They publish investigations into critical issues like detention conditions. Their most recent work focused on the rights and health of prisoners amid the pandemic. They do crucial work documenting executions in Egypt. They recently issued a report documenting how Egyptian authorities executed no less than 53 people on death row in the month of October alone, a huge escalation in the use of the death penalty. So no one else is documenting this type of thing like EIPR is. And they’ve continued to operate despite being in an increasingly hostile environment and under constant pressure.
Just last February, their gender rights researcher, Patrick George Zaky, was arrested at the airport after returning from Italy, where he was studying abroad. He was tortured by electrocution during his interrogation and put into pretrial detention, where he remains behind bars. So that’s the context. And even within that context, what happened with these arrests marked a sharp escalation by authorities against EIPR and civil society in general.
And as you mentioned, on November 3rd, EIPR held a meeting at their office with about 13 European ambassadors and diplomats, talking about enhancing human rights in Egypt and globally. They were open about the meeting, transparent. They published photos of it online. But this is apparently what triggered the arrests. So, Mohamed Basheer, the administrative director of the group, was arrested from his home in the middle of the night. A few days later, Karim Ennarah, the head of the criminal justice unit, was arrested while he was on the beach on vacation in South Sinai. And yesterday, the executive director, Gasser Abdel-Razek, was arrested from his home in Cairo.
What is also very worrying about these arrests is that they came in conjunction with a highly coordinated smear campaign in media outlets owned by the General Intelligence Service, the Mukhabarat. So they were publishing articles timed almost exactly with Karim’s arrest, with the second arrest, calling EIPR an illegal organization whose goal is to undermine Egypt and to harm its national security. So, this is an indication of — this coordinated media campaign is an indication that this crackdown is being ordered from the very top, which is of great concern.
So, as it stands now, Mohamed, Karim and Gasser have been ordered into pretrial detention for 15 days on charges including joining a terrorist organization, publishing false news. These pretrial detention charges can be renewed for weeks, months or even years, and they’ve become the main mechanism by Egyptian authorities to imprison people without ever having to put them on trial. So, again, these arrests are a huge blow to civil society in Egypt — and not just to civil society, to independent media, to grassroots activism and movements. And it has really sent shockwaves throughout the community here.
AMY GOODMAN: I know that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has condemned the arrests. What about the ambassadors who attended the meeting? Other countries? And, very quickly, what your hopes are for next steps?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the response has, frankly, been quite tepid from the European countries that attended this meeting and that the arrests were in response to. I was expecting to see more. I believe Norway has put out a statement. In the U.S., Senator Chris Coons, who’s being talked about as a possible appointee as secretary of state under Biden, also tweeted against this. And then, the Human Rights Council today condemned the arrests, saying they’re part of a broader pattern of intimidating organizations working on human rights in Egypt, and using counterterrorism and national security legislation to silence dissent. The French foreign ministry also put out a statement condemning the arrests, but Egypt’s foreign ministry very quickly then rejected their statement, saying it’s an interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. So, we’ll have to see what happens.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, thanks so much for being with us. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent and a reporter for Mada Masr based in Cairo. Please be safe.
And that does it for our broadcast. A Happy Birthday and a fond farewell and all the very best to our digital intern, Noah Flora. That does it for the show. Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Our director is Becca Staley. Thanks to Miriam Barnard, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. Please be safe. Wear a mask. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.