Rights group says Egypt has freed 3 of its arrested staffers

CAIRO (AP) — Three Egyptian rights workers who were arrested and slapped with terrorism-related charges last month were freed on Thursday after an outcry over the government’s crackdown on one of the last rights groups still operating in the country.

The government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has been relentlessly silencing dissent and clamping down on independent organizations for years, with arrests and restrictions. But the release of the staffers suggested authorities had grown worried over international criticism of the crackdown on the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR.

The three members of the group, including its executive director Gasser Abdel-Razek, were arrested in November after it hosted foreign diplomats for 13 Western countries 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 EIPR’s criminal justice director Karim Ennarah and administrative director Mohammed Basheer, were freed Thursday evening, said Hossam Bahgat, who founded the organization 18 years ago and stepped back in as acting head 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 EIPR’s assets. A judge is due to rule on the prosecutor’s request on Sunday. A researcher for the group, Patrick Zaki, who was arrested in February, remains in jail.

There was no immediate public comment from judicial authorities.

The government of el-Sissi, a U.S. ally with deep economic ties to European countries, has been waging the heaviest crackdown on dissent in the Mideast 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. EIPR is the most prominent group of the few that are still active, continuing to work on documenting civil rights violations, prison conditions, sectarian violence and discrimination against women and religious minorities.

The arrests raised alarm, with the United Nations, some foreign governments, international rights groups, politicians and celebrities — including actors Emma Thompson and Scarlett Johansson — calling for them to be freed.

President-elect 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.”

The release comes ahead of a meeting in Paris next week between el-Sissi and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose government has been a major arms provider to Egypt and who faced calls from rights groups to pressure the Egyptian leader to free the three and other activists.

It also comes amid signs of a possible shift in tone toward Egypt. For years, the government’s crackdowns have gone without heavy public criticism from its Western allies, and President Donald Trump has repeatedly shown strong support for el-Sissi. In June, however, Biden warned that there would be “no more blank checks” for the Egyptian government, suggesting his administration could bring greater pressure on its human rights record.

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