CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Saturday upheld a decision to freeze the assets of several prominent human rights campaigners in the latest blow to a once-vibrant activist community that has been largely silenced by a government crackdown.
The five activists named in the court ruling include Gamal Eid and investigative reporter Hossam Bahgat, also the founder of a key rights group. The ruling also froze the assets of prominent rights campaigners Bahey eldin Hassan, Mustafa el-Hassan and Abdel-Hafiz Tayel along with the assets of the groups they lead.
The five face charges of illegally receiving foreign funds and using them to harm national security. If convicted, they could face up to 25 years in prison.
"We can live under threat, but we will not collude with a police state that despises human rights, the January revolution and democracy," Eid, one of the five, wrote on his Facebook account after the verdict, referring to the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
He later told The Associated Press that the ruling was politicized and sent a message to civil society campaigners to toe the line or else.
"Today, the law took the day off," he said.
Authorities have waged a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent since the 2013 military overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, an elected Islamist president.
Authorities have jailed thousands of people, mainly Islamists but also leading secular and liberal activists behind the 2011 uprising. Rights groups say the current government led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as army chief led Morsi's overthrow, is even more repressive than Mubarak's 29-year rule.
The Egyptian media, which is largely dominated by el-Sissi supporters, has also lashed out at human rights activists, branding them as traitors or agents of foreign powers.
The court's ruling came on the eve of el-Sissi's departure for New York to attend meetings of the U.N. General Assembly, an occasion that he has in the past used to confer with foreign and congressional leaders. Since his election in 2014, el-Sissi has been focused on reviving Egypt's ailing economy, upgrading its rickety infrastructure and battling Islamic State militants in the Sinai Peninsula.
He has repeatedly defended his country's human rights record, arguing that it should not be judged by Western standards and that the right to education, decent housing and health care is just as important as freedom of expression.
The five campaigners were swept up in a wider case against at least 12 rights groups that dates back to 2011, but which was revived last year. Authorities have slapped 12 travel bans on campaigners, initiated the asset freeze process against 13 and interrogated 17, according to a background briefing prepared by seven rights groups, including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, and Eid's Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Saturday's ruling did not apply to the assets of the two groups.
"Egyptian authorities are single-mindedly pushing for the elimination of the country's most prominent independent human rights defenders," Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said. "Egypt's international partners should not be fooled by repression cloaked in the guise of legalistic procedure."
Amnesty International described Saturday's ruling as a "reprehensible blow" to Egypt's human rights movement.
"We are calling for this unjust ruling to be quashed with immediate effect, and for the Egyptian authorities to cease their harassment of these human rights defenders and members of their families," the group's Philip Luther said in a statement. "This is a blatant misuse of the criminal justice system to prevent people speaking out about the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country."