Egypt shuts down organization treating torture victims

AP News
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Posted: Feb 09, 2017 2:59 PM
Egypt shuts down organization treating torture victims

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian police on Thursday morning shuttered an organization that treats victims of torture and trauma, said a prominent psychiatrist who founded the center, describing it as part of the latest security crackdown on civil society in Egypt.

Aida Seif el-Dawla told The Associated Press that when her staff arrived at Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, it had been sealed by police. The building's doorman was taken into police custody but was later released, she said.

She posted pictures on Facebook of sealing wax plastered across the door handles on the offices and commented: "We will continue."

The closure of the center, which offers therapy for torture victims and documents cases of police violations, comes as Seif el-Dawla has been fighting a court order to have the center shuttered since last year. The order issued in March 2016 was never made public but is reportedly based on vague government claims of breaches of Health Ministry regulations.

The closure comes amid an increasingly tense Egypt, where the prosecution of non-government organizations has become common.

Amnesty International said the closing of the center "exposes the chilling extremes to which the authorities are prepared to go to in their relentless and unprecedented persecution of human rights activists in recent years."

Over the past year, security forces have arrested a number of factory workers on strike and Human Rights Watch called on Thursday for Egyptian prosecutors to drop all charges against at least 26 workers charged in recent months in connection with peaceful strikes and protests.

On Wednesday, police raided a downtown coffee shop and arrested six men, according to the men's attorney, Halem Henish. Four of the men are political activists who have recently served time in prison in separate cases. Zizo Abdu, Omar Hazek, Nour Khalil and Mahmoud Mohamed were released later Wednesday, along with a fifth detainee, Ahmed Shahin.

The whereabouts of the sixth arrested man, Amr Mahmoud, were unknown, Henish said.

Khalil said on his Facebook page following his release that the six were interrogated while blindfolded by National Security officials in an unofficial building.

At a counter-terrorism seminar hosted by the Egyptian military on Thursday, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi again evoked security concerns in a speech that underlined the threat of terrorism and emphasized the need for solidarity with military and police, which he praised for leading the country's anti-terrorism efforts.

In the past, el-Sisi has used similar speeches to justify heavy handed tactics by the security forces against civil society organizations as necessary to countering threats toward national security.

The Al-Nadeem center, founded in 1993, is one of a number of non-governmental organizations under investigation for allegedly illegally receiving foreign funds in a case that has been repeatedly criticized as being politically motivated.

Besides Seif el-Dawla, prominent investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat, rights advocate Gamal Eid and others have been barred from travel, and a court has also frozen their assets.

Rights groups have accused Egyptian police of regularly torturing detainees and of detaining suspected activists or Islamists without ever reporting their arrests. The government has denied that torture is systemic, saying there have only been isolated cases.

In 2016, Seif el-Dawla's center recorded about 600 cases of police torture and almost 500 people killed by security forces, 100 of them while incarcerated. The AP could not independently verify these numbers.

El-Sissi has overseen a broad crackdown on dissent since 2013, when he led a military overthrow of his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi. Security forces have jailed thousands of Islamists and killed hundreds as they crushed protests.

More recently, the campaign has increasingly targeted secular activists who criticize the former general's rule. Freedom of speech has been stifled and many journalists and TV hosts have either been jailed, sacked, or deported.

On Thursday, the Doha-based Al-Jazeera TV network decried the continued detention of one of its senior journalists, Mahmoud Hussein, who has been held for nearly 50 days in Egypt in conditions described by the network as "inhumane" over allegations of "spreading false news."

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American author and government critic, said the center's closure was part of a targeted campaign to silence civil society groups who have incurred the ire of authorities.

"When you correlate all these things, the people who are attacked - whether through hacking or through arrest - the pattern is obvious: the regime is trying to silence any voice that opposes it and any voice that documents its crimes and wants the world to know those crimes," she said.

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Associated Press writers Heba Afify and Maggie Michael in Cairo and Raphael Satter in Paris contributed to this report.