• 19:34
  • Thursday ,25 August 2011

36 rights groups condemn smear campaign, call for more independence

By-Heba Fahmy-Daily News Egypt

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Thursday ,25 August 2011

36 rights groups condemn smear campaign, call for more independence

 CAIRO: Thirty-six rights groups condemned on Wednesday the government's "smear campaign," in which they are accused of "high treason" for receiving foreign funding and serving foreign agendas.

"We denounce the continuation of the organized smear campaigns designed to impugn these groups patriotism," the groups said in a joint statement during a press conference Wednesday morning.
They called for sacking Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga and Minister of Social Solidarity Gouda Abdel Khaleq for their "hostile stance" against civil society organizations and their role in restricting their activities and yielding to the security apparatus.
On Tuesday, the groups filed a complaint to a number of human rights officials at the United Nations, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
They called on the UN officials to pressure the Egyptian government to end the "vicious media campaign" launched against them, and review the national legislation and revise the NGO law to provide more freedom to civil society groups.
The timing of the campaign has to do with the upcoming parliamentary elections, argued Negad Al-Boraie, director of the United Group of Lawyers and Legal Consultants.
"The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and fundamentalist currents formed a front to bring down rights organizations to prevent them from monitoring the upcoming elections," he said.
"It's obvious that they are planning on rigging the upcoming elections, starting with their decision to prevent international monitoring," he added.
However, Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), believed the campaign was a response to the critical reports issued by these groups against SCAF's violations.
The ruling military council has been faced with torture allegations and criticized for referring civilians to military courts since it took over power on Feb. 11, after Hosni Mubarak's fall.
The government has recently taken a number of procedures to probe civil society groups, questioning their funding and investigating whether they served foreign agendas.
Earlier last month, the Cabinet formed a committee headed by the Minister of Justice to investigate the funding of civil society groups.
The Cabinet’s decision came after SCAF issued a statement singling out the April 6 Youth Movement, and raising suspicion over its sources of funding and whether it serves any “foreign agendas.”
On July 23, member of SCAF, General Hassan Al-Rueiny, accused the April 6 Movement and other organizations of attempting to drive a wedge between the people and the army, in TV interviews.
The Minister of Social Solidarity announced earlier this month a request to the Egyptian Central Bank to keep him informed of all transactions on accounts held by NGOs.
The groups slammed this decision as a "flagrant breach" of account confidentiality guaranteed by the law. The law stipulates that such information shouldn't be disclosed unless there's a court order.
Hafez Abu Saeda, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said that around 130 civil society organizations were contacted by banks requesting information regarding their funds.
Al-Boraie was asked by the Commercial International Bank (CIB) about details of a grant he received from USAID.
However Eid, said that the groups haven't been officially investigated yet.
"If they have any evidence against us, they should start an official investigation, instead of making void accusations to benefit their smear campaign," Eid told Daily News Egypt, following the conference.
The State Security prosecution, which was formed under the emergency law, started an investigation into the foreign funding of NGOs on Aug. 8, according to state-run media reports.
The court formed by presidential decree — in this case issued by SCAF — lacks neutrality and its verdict cannot be challenged on appeal, the groups argued.
They also criticized Egypt's NGO law, demanding more freedom and independence.
"Civil society organizations can be disbanded for receiving foreign funding without government approval," head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Bahey El-Din Hassan, said.
Rights lawyer Khaled Aly explained that NGOs can only receive foreign funding through the Ministry of Social Solidarity which used to take its orders from the notorious, now-disbanded State Security Investigations and now takes it from the security apparatus that replaced it under a different name.
"The NGO pitches a project to the Ministry of Social Solidarity and it has complete authority to refuse or approve the project based on the orders it gets," Aly said.
NGOs are only allowed to receive funding from local companies without the state's supervision, according to a ruling by the Cassation court, he added. However, article 17 of the law states that the ministry must approve the receipt of any donations or grants whether local or foreign.
The groups explained that they were forced to accept foreign funding, as local companies refused to endorse them, for fears of associating themselves to groups known for criticizing the practices of the government.
The NGO law also enforces other restrictions on civil society groups, as it gives the ministry full authority to approve or decline the establishment of a group and to object the election of the groups' board members and disqualify them.
"Practical experience has shown that such laws regulating grants tend to be used to hinder the work of civic organizations, particularly if these organizations work to defend human rights and expose government abuses," read the complaint.
While the groups didn't refer to the fact that the Egypt has received approximately $2 billion in annual aid from the US since 1979 – an average of $1.3 billion went to the military annually – activists have often cited this information to defend their case that foreign funding doesn’t mean serving a foreign agenda.
Eid told DNE that the groups refused the idea of comparing and criticizing the state's funding, as they believed that the state as well as civil society groups are entitled to receive foreign funding, without being incriminated.