Three Egyptian human rights defenders released from prison amid dire situation for activism

Photo of Karim Ennarah and his partner Jessica Kelly - Karim is one of the three Egyptian activists released this weekend

Following widespread international outcry and a solidarity campaign within and outside of Egypt, the Egyptian government on 3 December released three human rights activists after their arbitrary arrest and detention in November. Karim Ennarah, Mohamed Basheer, and Gasser Abdel-Razek are senior staff at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a prominent independent human rights NGO. Between 15 and 20 November, the three men were detained pending investigations and charges including “joining a terrorist organisation” and “spreading false news” for their work covering political, civil, economic, and social issues in Egypt.

The colleagues were also added to a Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) case involving what Amnesty International has described as “unfounded terrorism-related charges” against human rights defenders and journalists. A fourth EIPR staff member, researcher Patrick George Zaki, remains in pre-trial detention following his arrest and detention at the Cairo International Airport on similar charges in February. Zaki was returning home from his postgraduate studies at the University of Bologna in Italy, when he was charged with “harming national security.” EIPR reports that he has been beaten, subjected to electric shocks, threatened, and questioned about his work and activism. 

In a press release on 5 December, EIPR expressed gratitude for those involved in the solidarity campaign that included celebrities, foreign politicians, and the United Nations, and resulted in the release of three of their staffers. They described the move as ‘unusual’ on the part of Egyptian security forces. 

“This world-wide support presented a good example of what could be achieved despite the severely shrunken space for civil society at large and the gagging of all professional and pro-democracy voices in Egypt’s mainstream media,” the statement read. 

Ennarah is the director of criminal justice at EIPR and a SOAS alumnus. He graduated from his Masters of Law, Society and Culture in 2017. In the days following his arrest on 18 November, sabbatical officers at SOAS circulated an email among the campus community drawing attention to the situation and asking staff and students to send an email to the Egyptian Embassy and Ambassador to the UK calling for their immediate release.

“We have a responsibility to stand in complete and uncompromising solidarity with those who are part of our community and especially those who have dedicated their lives to fight for the freedom and dignity of others,” read the email. SOAS also issued an official statement calling for the immediate release of Ennarah, Basheer and Abdel-Razek. 

But while three of the EIPR staff members’ release comes as a relief, the situation for human rights defenders in Egypt remains dire amid a crackdown on civil society since President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2013. Al-Sisi led the military takeover of government following protests against his democratically-elected predecessor, Mohammed Morsi.

Al-Sisi’s regime has enacted various assembly, protest, anti-cybercrime and counterterrorism laws that have been used to detain and prosecute human rights defenders (HRDs) including journalists, bloggers, minority rights defenders and other activists. Rights groups have estimated that at least 60,000 people have been arrested in Egypt on political grounds, which the administration denies. 

Notable in the case of EIPR are the counterterrorism laws that introduced an extended definition of a “terrorist entity” and terrorism funding, as well as Case No. 173. Commonly referred to as the ‘foreign funding case’, it has been used to prosecute HRDs on charges of ‘illegally receiving foreign funding’ and ‘operating without legal permission’ and also imposes travel bans, asset freezes and staff interrogation.

Following the release of EIPR staff, a Circuit Terrorism Court ruling was held on 6 December. EIPR tweeted that the court had ordered the temporary freezing of the three staff members’ personal assets and property. According to the verdict, the decision to freeze the EIPR’s assets as an entity does not apply. Zaki’s remand renewal hearing was held during the same session, and his lawyers argued no grounds for continuous remand and asked for his release. The court’s did not immediately announce a decision, and his case is still pending.

As such, sustained activism must be held to ensure Zaki is not forgotten and he is not left to suffer any longer in prison. EIPR’s founder and acting director Hossam Bahgat on 4 December tweeted: “Our star gender specialist Patrick has been in pretrial detention for 10 months on some bogus terrorism charges. If you raise your voice for him today we might take a few days off.” 

Following his release, Abdel-Razek said that the organization will continue fighting for the rights of all Egyptian people.  

“I am doing this work out of conviction,” he said in an interview (link in Arabic) with the BBC. “I am doing this job for the future of my children,” he said. For updates on the situation, visit or follow @eipr on Twitter.

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes

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