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 arrests and moves against the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, had underscored the extent to which President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government has gone in silencing dissent and independent organization in years of arrests and other forms of intimidation.
The three, including 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 EIPR's criminal justice director Karim Ennarah and administrative director Mohammed Basheer, were freed Thursday evening, said Hossam Bahgat, who founded the organization 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 EIPR’s assets.
There was no immediate public comment from judicial authorities.
The release order comes ahead of a high profile visit next week by el-Sissi to France, where he is to meet with President Emmanuel Macron. Rights groups have been calling on Macron, whose government is a major arms supplier to Egypt, to press el-Sissi to free the three and other activists.
The arrests last month came after ambassadors and senior diplomats from 13 Western countries met with EIPR earlier this month for talks that the group said “discussed ways to improve human rights conditions in Egypt.”
Their detention sparked international condemnation, including from the United Nations and several foreign governments. 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 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. The 18-year-old EIPR is the most prominent group of the few who are still active, continuing to work on documenting civil rights violations, prison conditions, sectarian violence and discrimination against women and religious minorities.