The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Egypt releases human rights campaigners after international outcry

Karim Ennarah and his now-wife Jess Kelly pose for a photograph in 2018 after they graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. (Jess Kelly via AP)

CAIRO — Three Egyptian human rights activists were released from detention Thursday after a wave of international condemnation against the Arab nation's authoritarian government that included U.S. politicians and Hollywood celebrities.

The trio — Gasser Abdel-Razek, Karim Ennarah and Mohamed Basheer — work for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the few remaining rights groups in Egypt, where President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has waged a massive crackdown on opponents and activists alike.

“They are fine, they are in good spirits,” said Ragya Omran, their lawyer, Thursday night.

The three men were arrested last month after they met with 13 Western diplomats to discuss ways to improve human rights conditions in Egypt. A few days after the meeting, they were rounded up by Egyptian security forces over a week-long period and charged with “joining a terrorist organization” and “using social media accounts to spread false information.”

Such charges, often used by Egypt’s regime against human rights advocates, typically result in months, even years, in pretrial detention or jail. And there are numerous cases where even after a release order, detainees are held for days. Yet on Thursday, the three men were released from Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison instead of being taken to a local police station for processing, a move even EIPR said was “unusual.”

“It was a very quick and clean release, which is unprecedented,” Omran said. “There was a lot of international pressure. … It worked.”

Few arrests have sparked the global outrage that followed the detention of the EIPR employees. The United Nations, France and other governments publicly denounced the arrests. Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, declared in a tweet that “meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.”

On social media, a petition campaign with the hashtags #FreeEIPRstaff and #FreeKarimEnnarah went viral, spearheaded by Ennarah’s British wife, Jess Kelly. It prompted Hollywood celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson and Emma Thompson to post videos of themselves on YouTube urging the release of the EIPR staffers. In Egypt, EIPR remained vocal and defiant.

On Thursday night, after the three men took cabs from the prison to their homes, one of the group’s leaders publicly noted that the global outcry played a significant role in convincing the regime to release his colleagues.

“I can confirm my friends and EIPR colleague, Gasser, Basheer and Karim have been released and are home which I guess means we (and you) managed to #FreeEIPRstaff,” tweeted Hossam Bahgat, the organization’s founder.

Bahgat, despite being under a travel ban and asset freeze imposed by the Sissi government, returned to take the helm last month after Abdel-Razek, its executive director, was taken into custody. Placed in a cold cell, he was initially denied warm clothing and a mattress, among other ill treatment, said Amnesty International.

“This is an important reminder that robust pressure can work & Egypt’s partners have leverage when they coordinate efforts & remain consistent in their demands,” tweeted Timothy Kaldas, an Egypt analyst at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “Let’s hope these innocent human rights defenders don’t carry any residual punishments like travel bans.”

But the organization and the trio could still face problems in the weeks ahead. There is an ongoing investigation into the charges against them and a possible trial for involvement in terrorist activities, charges widely denounced by watchdog groups and Western diplomats as bogus. The men could not only be banned from traveling, but have their assets frozen, actions often taken by the government to undermine and control human rights advocates. 

“We don’t know the status of the case,” Omran said.

Bahgat himself is under more scrutiny for his outspokenness and defiance of the regime. On Thursday, EIPR tweeted that plainclothes security agents went to Bahgat’s family home in the northern coastal city of Alexandria and questioned his mother about his whereabouts, as well as a porter in the building.

“I’m fine and I’m still free and not aware of any arrests or summons,” Bahgat later tweeted. “I left my mother’s house in Alexandria 22 years ago (big mistake, no regrets) so I wasn’t there to receive the visitors. Thank you all dearly for checking in.”