(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities have banned the prominent director of a women’s rights organization from traveling outside the country. On June 27, 2016, Interior Ministry passport control officers at Cairo International Airport stopped Mozn Hassan, the director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, from boarding her flight to Beirut, where she planned to attend a meeting of regional women human rights defenders.
Hassan is the fourth director of a nongovernmental organization to be banned from travel since a panel of judges reopened an investigation into the foreign funding of these groups in late 2014. That investigation escalated in the first half of 2016, as authorities have sought an increasing number of travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders and political activists.
“A travel ban on a women’s rights leader heading for a conference only makes it more likely that the world will hear about Egypt’s persecution of activists,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “Egypt’s allies around the world should make it clear that harassment and other abuses against human rights defenders will significantly harm relations and should cease.”
Airport officers told Hassan that the prosecutor general had issued an order banning her from travel at the request of an investigating judge, she told Human Rights Watch. They did not provide further details or show Hassan the order. The officers sent Hassan to colleagues from the ministry’s National Security Agency, which has taken the lead on the investigation of nongovernmental groups, for further questioning. Hassan invoked her right to have a lawyer present, and the interrogation did not go forward. After about an hour, the authorities returned Hassan’s passport and released her from the airport.
One of the judges handling the investigation of nongovernmental groups, which was first opened in 2011 and restarted in late 2014, had summoned Hassan for interrogation on March 29, 2016, but postponed the session indefinitely when she arrived with lawyers, telling them that he would set a date for them to review the case file.
Hassan’s travel ban followed soon after a similar incident on June 21, when Cairo airport authorities told Hoda Abd al-Wahab, the executive director of the Arab Center for Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, that she had been banned from travel by order of the prosecutor general.
The prosecutor general has also issued travel bans to leaders of at least two other groups, Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information and Hossam al-Din Ali of the Egyptian Democratic Academy, in addition to scores of other people. According to a documented count maintained by the independent group Daftar Ahwal, at least 175 activists, journalists, religious figures, politicians, and human rights workers have been banned from leaving Egypt since the military removed former President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013.
The investigating judges have also requested asset freezes against a number of current and former workers for nongovernmental groups, including Eid; Abd al-Hafiz Tayel, the director of the Egyptian Center for the Right to Education; Mustafa al-Hassan, the director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center; Bahey al-Din Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; and Hossam Bahgat, an investigative journalist who founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. A court will continue proceedings related to those requests on July 17, 2016. On June 15, a court approved, in just one session, an asset freeze against Ahmed Samih, the director of the Andalus Center for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies.
On February 17, Health Ministry officials issued an order to close the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Egypt’s leading center for such treatment, on the basis that it was performing unlicensed work. The center has continued to operate as it tries to negotiate the shutdown order.
The investigation into the foreign funding of nongovernmental groups, known as Case 173, began after Egypt’s uprising in 2011, when the government, accusing foreign groups of helping foment revolution, appointed two judges to look into the matter. It resulted in the conviction of 43 employees, including 16 United States citizens, and the closure of five foreign organizations.
The government reopened the case in late 2014, after the Social Solidarity Ministry gave local groups a November deadline to officially register under Egypt’s onerous 2007 law on associations.
Under Egyptian law, prosecutors could charge leading human rights defenders for working without official registration or accepting foreign funding without government authorization. An amendment to the penal code, passed in September 2014 by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, provides for a sentence of up to life in prison – 25 years in Egypt – for the latter charge.
Article 62 of the Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of movement and states that “no citizen may be prevented from leaving the state territory…except by a reasoned judicial order for a specified period of time and in the cases defined by the law.” Article 54 states that anyone “whose freedom is restricted … shall have the right to file grievance before the court against this action.” Egypt has no laws that specifically regulate travel bans, but various decisions by the interior minister, some of which have been ruled unconstitutional, give unchecked powers to security agencies to stop citizens from traveling.
Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a party, states that “everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.” Restrictions to this right must be provided by law and be “necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body tasked with overseeing the ICCPR, stated in a general comment that such restrictions “must not nullify the principle of liberty of movement, and are governed by the requirement of necessity … and by the need for consistency with the other rights recognized in the Covenant.” In 2011, the committee stated that restricting the movement of journalists and others within or outside their country, especially for the purpose of attending human-rights-related meetings, undermines the freedom of expression that is essential to protect human rights.
Both the National Security Agency and the General Intelligence Service, Egypt’s external spy agency, have for a number of years been gathering information on local groups’ activities, Human Rights Watch said. Their findings were contained in a September 2011 fact-finding report, parts of which were leaked to the media, that named 37 groups under investigation, including all of those affected by the recent summonses and travel bans.
“After restricting their ability to operate inside Egypt, the authorities are trying to punish high-profile activists with travel bans to prevent them from carrying their voices and message abroad,” Houry said.