Egypt prosecutor orders release of jailed human rights defenders

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The EIPR staff were interrogated at the New Cairo Courthouse on suspicion of 'terrorism' - Reuters
The EIPR staff were interrogated at the New Cairo Courthouse on suspicion of 'terrorism' - Reuters

An Egyptian human rights defender married to a British documentary maker was released from prison in Cairo alongside two of his colleagues on Thursday evening, their employer said, following lobbying to secure their release that included Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Hollywood actor Scarlett Johansson.

Karim Ennarah, whose wife Jess Kelly has been campaigning for his release since his arrest last month, was freed with two other senior staff members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Gasser Abdel-Razek and Mohammed Bashir.

Their unexpected release came after they were ordered into pre-trial detention on suspicion of terrorism in November amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in Egypt.

"Gasser, Karim and Basheer were let go directly from Tora prison. Unusual. They are now either home or on the way home," EIPR said on Twitter.

“This is very exciting news,” said Ms Kelly. “I won’t believe it till I hear his voice.”

Mr Ennarah, who spent his 37th birthday in prison, had been preparing to move to the UK ahead of his arrest as his environment in Egypt became increasingly hostile, Ms Kelly said.

EIPR said the trigger for arrest of its staff had been meeting the group held on November 3 to discuss Egypt’s rights record with European ambassadors and diplomats that included UK Deputy Ambassador Neerav Patel.

The arrests prompted widespread condemnation globally, including from the United Nations.

Mr Raab raised his concerns about the arrests with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry, the Foreign Office said last month.

Antony Blinken, US President-elect Joe Biden's foreign policy adviser, said at the time that "meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights."

On Tuesday, Johansson released a video calling for the men’s release.

"I'm in awe of the bravery of these men who continue their work to defend human rights at such a great personal cost," she said.

"Their only crime has been to stand up for the dignity of Egyptians. EIPR has for years worked tirelessly and bravely on the front lines to protect and defend the most vulnerable, to reform the broken criminal justice system which wreaks havoc on innocent people's lives, and to end the death penalty."

Egyptian newspaper Al Dostor reported that while the men would be released, the charges against them had not been dropped.

Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, the government of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has suppressed dissent by arresting tens of thousands of opponents including Islamists, civil society figures, activists, commentators and critics.

But the EIPR arrests represented an “an alarming and dangerous escalation” of the crackdown, Human Rights Watch said.

The men were arrested "for their mere association with the EIPR", said Amr Magdi, Human Rights Watch Egypt researcher. "It’s not about attending a protest or an article they wrote. That’s what’s different here from previous arrests of human rights activists."

The EIPR is the most prominent of the few independent local rights groups still operating in the country. It has produced reports on prison conditions, the use of force by security forces in response to protests, and recently on the increasing use of capital punishment.