Foreign Office accused of cover-up about trade mission to Sisi’s Egypt

Campaigners say blind eye is being turned on human rights abuses in race for business

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The Independent Online

The Foreign Office has been accused of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Egypt in a concerted drive to secure lucrative trade deals.

Diplomats are stalling on disclosing the names of 40 companies which last month accompanied a FCO minister on the largest trade mission to Egypt in more than a decade amid criticism that such delegations risk sending a message that Britain no longer considers human rights in the country a priority.

Campaign group Reprieve said the Government’s determination to push trade with Egypt was distracting attention from widespread abuses being carried out in the country, which include the continued detention of Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish teenager who faces the death sentence for attending a protest in Cairo two years ago.

Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood has said Britain is committed to boosting international investment in Egypt as well as increasing bilateral trade, which last year rose by nearly a quarter to £1.6bn.

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Dublin-born Ibrahim Halawa, now 18, was arrested with his three sisters after being caught up in protests in Cairo in August 2013

British companies and diplomats are expected to be out in force at a showpiece international trade meeting in the resort city of Sharm-el-Sheikh later this month in search of contracts in such projects as the ongoing £5.5bn expansion of the Suez canal. In particular, sectors such as energy, water, retailing and financial services are being targeted.

Ministers insist they have repeatedly raised human rights concerns with the Egyptian authorities and say that boosting the country’s economy will help secure democracy. An FCO spokesperson said: “The UK Government is committed to supporting the Egyptian people’s aspiration for a full and functioning democracy, with a dynamic economy that creates jobs and opportunities for all Egyptians.

 

“This does not prevent us from raising human rights concerns with the Egyptian government, including the use of mass trials, and we have consistently called for all trials to be conducted in line with international standards.”

But campaigners say the British focus on trade is reinforcing abuses being carried out under the government of former army chief general Abdel Fattah el Sisi, which include the detention of hundreds of protesters, allegations of torture and the use of mass trials. The dash to secure business with Egypt has drawn comparisons with Libya, where Britain eagerly sought trade ties following the lifting of dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s pariah status in 2007.

Some 500 people in Egypt, including Mr Halawa, currently face execution for attending protests declared illegal by the Sisi regime. The detainees, many of whom have been held for years, are being prosecuted under laws which make suspects liable for fatalities during protests, despite what campaigners say is a lack of evidence linking the defendants to the alleged crimes.

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Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood, right, greets Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah at a meeting with members of an anti-Islamic State coalition (IS) at Lancaster House last month (Getty)

Maya Foa, head of Reprieve’s death penalty team, said:  “While the Egyptian government presides over a wave of human rights abuses, the UK’s ‘business as usual’ approach is giving it the imprimatur of approval.”

The human rights organisation wants the FCO to provide a full list of the companies which accompanied Mr Ellwood to Egypt on a three-day trade mission in January. But despite such lists regularly appearing in the public domain, diplomats have stalled on releasing complete details of the Egypt delegation, citing the need to apply a public interest test, which could result in the names being withheld on the basis of “commercial interests” and “health and safety”.

An FCO spokesman said: “Ministers have consistently raised human rights, including the use of mass trials, with the Egyptian authorities.”

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