Three Egyptian human rights workers who were arrested and charged with terrorism-related offences last month have been freed after an outcry over the government’s crackdown on one of the last rights groups still operating in the country.
The arrests and moves against the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, had underlined the extent to which President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s government has gone in silencing dissent and independent organisation during years of arrests and other forms of intimidation.
The three, including the EIPR’s director, Gasser Abdel-Razek, were arrested in November after the group hosted foreign diplomats to discuss the human rights situation in Egypt. They were charged with belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false information.
Abdel-Razek along with the EIPR’s criminal justice director, Karim Ennarah, and administrative director, Mohammed Basheer, were freed on Thursday evening, said Hossam Bahgat, who founded the organisation and stepped in as acting director after the arrests.
It was not immediately clear if the release meant charges against the three had been dropped. Prosecutors often free activists on bail but keep charges hanging over their heads. The crackdown on the group continues on another front as well, with prosecutors seeking to freeze the EIPR’s assets.
There was no immediate public comment from judicial authorities.
Sisi is due to make a high-profile visit next week to France, where he is to meet Emmanuel Macron. Rights groups have been calling on Macron, whose government is a major arms supplier to Egypt, to press Sisi to free the three and other activists.
Ambassadors and senior diplomats from 13 western countries met the EIPR last month for talks that the group said “discussed ways to improve human rights conditions in Egypt”.
The arrests sparked international condemnation, including from the UN and several foreign governments. Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken said at the time that “meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.”
Sisi’s government, a US ally with deep economic ties to European countries, has been waging the heaviest crackdown on dissent in the nation’s modern history, targeting not only Islamist political opponents but also security pro-democracy activists, journalists and online critics.
Independent local rights groups have largely stopped operating. The EIPR is the most prominent group of the few that are still active, and continues to document civil rights violations, prison conditions, sectarian violence and discrimination against women and religious minorities.