As the international community gathers to honor Egyptian human rights defender Mohamed Zaree at the Martin Ennals Award ceremony in Geneva on October 10, the Egyptian government has barred him from traveling to attend the ceremony. A letter from the Martin Ennals Foundation urging President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to lift a travel ban that has been in place for over two years was ignored, marking the latest in a retributive campaign that has resulted in Zaree facing life imprisonment. Zaree’s enforced absence from Tuesday’s ceremony further exhibits to the world Egypt’s propensity for persecuting its best citizens.
Zaree, who heads the Egypt office at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), is among three finalists selected for the Martin Ennals Award, one of the most prestigious human rights honors in the world. It is awarded annually to courageous individuals who persevere in defending human rights despite the extreme risks and dangers they face. Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of CIHRS, commended Zaree for his work while noting what his absence from the ceremony reveals about the harsh reality confronted by Egyptian human rights defenders:
“Mohamed Zaree is an inspiration to the youth in Egypt and the Arab region. Thanks to his extraordinary dedication to the truth and law, in just a few years this young lawyer became a renowned human rights defender in Egypt and throughout the world. His enforced absence from the awards ceremony in Geneva sends a resounding message about the retaliation that awaits Egyptian rights defenders in a country beleaguered by an alarming deterioration of freedoms, daily and grave human rights violations, and flagrant infringements on citizens’ rights by an authoritarian regime.”
After joining CIHRS in 2011, Zaree became a leading figure in advocating for the freedom of association and expression. He has acted as a unifying force in Egypt’s human rights community, bringing together the most prominent human rights defenders through his coordination of the Forum of Independent Human Rights Organizations, established by CIHRS in 2008. Since President al-Sisi assumed office three years ago, these organizations have been under constant siege, fighting for their very existence. The severe state-sponsored crackdown on civil society includes the intensifying persecution of human rights defenders under the Foreign Funding Case (No.173) of 2011. Zaree was banned from travel, and faces life imprisonment under Article 78 of the Penal Code in connection with this case. President al-Sisi amended the article in September 2014 for the ostensible purpose of countering terrorism. In practice, the amended article – like so much of Egypt’s counterterrorism legislation – has been used to silence the voices of peaceful opposition to unprecedented state repression, while terrorist violence continues to escalate throughout the country.
Zaree stands accused of receiving foreign funds with the intent of harming the state’s national security and interests – evidenced, according to the prosecution – by his participation in preparing Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Paradoxically, Egypt accepted the majority of these UPR recommendations. During his first interrogation in connection with the case in May of this year, Zaree maintained that the greatest threats to national security and interests are the violation of human rights and the suppression of freedoms. He was released on a bail of LE 30,000 while the prosecution remains ongoing.
CIHRS extends its deepest gratitude to the Martin Ennals Foundation for recognizing Zaree’s unwavering commitment to defending human rights in the face of severe risks and escalating repression. The institute had hoped the Egyptian state would allow Zaree to attend the ceremony, if only to demonstrate to the world that it is capable of taking actions to promote, rather than smother, any hope of a democratic future for Egypt. Instead, the Egyptian state squandered this opportunity by reaffirming its resolve to retaliate against Zaree, who is acclaimed throughout the world for his tireless defense of fundamental freedoms.
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