CAIRO – An Egyptian has been honored with one of the most prestigious awards granted to human rights defenders but was unable to accept the prize in person because his government has banned him from travel over his work documenting abuses.
Mohamed Zaree is one of several prominent Egyptian activists and human rights workers who are banned from travel over allegations of harming national security, part of a wide-scale crackdown on dissent that has stamped out much of the country’s once-vibrant civil society.
The Martin Ennals award is given out by 10 of the world’s leading human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to recognize outstanding work done at great personal risk. Zaree’s wife and daughters accepted it on his behalf at the ceremony in Geneva.
Zaree said he hopes the award will offer some protection to him and other members of Egypt’s dwindling human rights community, nearly all of whom face prosecution under sweeping laws targeting those accused of “undermining national unity.”
“We are all banned from travelling, and some have had their bank accounts frozen,” he told The Associated Press. “There is a danger for myself and my colleagues, but I believe the biggest danger is when the victims of human rights violations are denied their last hope.”
The 37-year-old Zaree leads activities in Egypt for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which focuses on the Arab world. The group moved its base to Tunisia in 2014 after Egypt unleashed a wave of repression against such organizations following the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president the previous year.
The group has handled high-profile cases, including that of Egyptian-American charity worker Aya Hijazi, who had established a foundation to aid street children in 2013 and was jailed on charges of child abuse that were dismissed as bogus by human rights groups and U.S. officials. She was released and allowed to return to the U.S. earlier this year after nearly three years in prison.
The award, named after a former head of Britain-based Amnesty, is among the most prestigious in the field. The other finalists were El Salvador transgender woman and activist Karla Avelar, and the FreeThe5KH group – five human rights defenders who were recently released after more than a year in pre-trial detention in Cambodia.
In Geneva, award founder Hans Thoolen celebrated Zaree’s “heroic” behavior in “holding the fort” nearly alone amid the crackdown on human rights organizations.
“There was a very clear understanding that the Egyptian regime seems to be emboldened by the lack of action in the U.N. and by major states,” he said.
Local human rights organizations and other civil society groups played a major role in documenting abuses under President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned in the face of a popular uprising in 2011 after nearly three decades in power. Such groups continued to operate until the military overthrew his successor, the freely elected but divisive Mohammed Morsi, two years later.
But Egypt’s current president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led Morsi’s overthrow, has presided over the heaviest crackdown in decades. Authorities have jailed tens of thousands, mainly Islamist supporters of Morsi but also several prominent secular activists.
The government has also pressed ahead with a law that would place heavy restrictions on civil society groups, which pro-government media outlets routinely portray as part of a foreign plot to destabilize the country.
“There is no comparison – it’s the darkest time Egypt has ever seen for human rights,” Zaree said. He said that under Mubarak “it was a fight to defend the space we had.”
“Now it’s a fight for our very existence – the current regime doesn’t want to deal with any human rights organizations, political parties, activists or journalists,” he said.
Last month Ibrahim Metwally, a prominent rights lawyer who focused on the issue of forced disappearances, was himself arrested in secret, with authorities only acknowledging his detention days later. He remains in custody on charges of “spreading false news.” Metwally’s son went missing during clashes at an Islamist protest in 2013 and has not been seen since.
Police have also launched a crackdown targeting gay men after a rainbow flag was waved at a concert last month, charging over two dozen individuals with violating laws on public decency.
The United States, which provides Egypt with $1.3 billion a year in mainly military aid, moved to halt or delay the transfer of nearly $300 million earlier this year, citing the country’s poor human rights record. But President Donald Trump has also praised el-Sissi as an ally against terrorism, and European countries still offer Egypt generous financing for advanced weapons systems.
As the award ceremony began in Geneva, Zaree, who was stuck in Cairo, called on Egypt’s foreign backers to do more to press for change, saying “security and human rights cannot be separated.”
“It is the basis of stability – countries with economic and military relations with Egypt should make sure that the weapons they sell it are not used in human rights violations,” he said. “There must be oversight that ensures these weapons are not used against peaceful civilians.”
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