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Egypt Defiant As International Criticism Grows Over Arrest Of Human Rights Activists

Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, in a photo from the organization's website. Abdel Razek was arrested with two other officials of the civil rights organization after the met with European ambassadors.
Gasser Abdel Razek, executive director of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, in a photo from the organization's website. Abdel Razek was arrested with two other officials of the civil rights organization after the met with European ambassadors.

The Egyptian government is facing an international backlash over the arrests of members of a leading Egyptian human rights organization following a meeting with European diplomats Nov. 3.

Since last week, authorities have arrested three members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on charges which include belonging to a terrorist organization, undermining public security by spreading false information and using the Internet to spread false news.

The Egyptian government has launched an unprecedented crackdown on civil rights under President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, jailing thousands of political prisoners, imposing new restrictions on freedom of expression and expanding the powers of Egypt's security forces.

EIPR executive director Gasser Abdel Razek, 52, appeared in a closed court session Monday. His defense lawyers said Abdel Razek's head had been shaved and he is being kept in solitary confinement without a mattress or blankets and with no heat or warm clothing.

Mohamed Basheer, administrative manager of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, seen in a photo on the civil rights organization's website. Basheer was arrested following a meeting with European ambassadors.
/ Courtesy: Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
Mohamed Basheer, administrative manager of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, seen in a photo on the civil rights organization's website. Basheer was arrested following a meeting with European ambassadors.

"His situation inside the prison is giving us the strong indication that Egyptian authorities want to destroy his will, putting him in a situation which could put him in a very serious medical situation," one of Abdel Razek's lawyers, Negad el-Borai, told NPR.

"He was sleeping on an iron bed. The prison did not allow him to receive clothes from his family," said el-Borai, who attended the court session. He said attorneys have asked the prosecutor to investigate the conditions in which Abdel Razek is being held and to ensure his health and safety.

Outside the federal courthouse in the New Cairo district of the Egyptian capital, family and friends waited across the street on the patio of a coffee shop as windowless blue police vans drove Abdel Razek and other prisoners into the court compound. Police kept ordering family and supporters to stay back to limit their view.

Abdel Razek's wife said they had been expecting the arrest after police took EIPR administrative manager Mohamed Basheer, and criminal justice director Karim Ennarah into custody last week before her husband was detained on Thursday.

"We're always expecting something like this but after those arrests we were kind of prepared," Miriam al-Orashi told NPR. "I decided to take the kids outside Cairo for the night so they wouldn't be at home when it happened."

She said half an hour after she and her children reached their destination, they received word her husband had been arrested at home.

She said Abdel Razek believed the EIPR's meeting Nov. 3 with a large number of diplomats, many of them European ambassadors, had triggered the arrests.

Britain's foreign office told the Egyptian government "all human rights defenders should be able to work without fear of arrest or reprisals." The European Union said it had communicated its "significant concern" over the arrests.

The U.S. State Department also condemned the arrests, as did Antony Blinken, tipped by President-elect Joe Biden to be his secretary of state.

Egypt has denounced the protests as interference in its internal affairs and says the human rights organization was not licensed to engage in the work it was doing.

The 18-year-old EIPR does research and advocacy on civil liberties, economic and social rights and criminal justice, investigating issues including prison conditions amid the pandemic and Egypt's increasing use of the death penalty.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has been largely silent regarding el-Sissi's crackdown on human rights and consolidation of military power, lifting blocks on aid and military assistance to the Egyptian government. President Trump has publicly referred to el-Sissi as "my favorite dictator."

Many activists in Egypt are wondering whether the new Biden administration will bring a change in U.S. policy.

"Gasser was really, really waiting for the elections to end and to know who would win," said al-Orashi, speaking of her husband. "Because he was always saying this is the world's future - it is not only for U.S. but it affects everyone."

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