Human rights activists in Egypt have reacted angrily to the arrest of prominent women’s rights advocate Azza Soliman, saying it marked a “chilling escalation” of pressure on civil society organisations.
Soliman, the founder of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance(CEWLA), is one of a number of activists, lawyers and journalists to have been prevented from leaving Egypt in the past month.
The rights lawyer and leading feminist said last week that she had been turned back on 19 November at Cairo airport. Soon after, Soliman discovered that her personal assets and those of her group had been frozen. On Wednesday, her foundation and a security source said she had been detained by police.
“The investigative judge has issued an arrest warrant against Azza Soliman,” CEWLA tweeted, adding that security forces had gone to Soliman’s house and taken her away to a Cairo police station.
There was no immediate comment from the interior ministry and it was not clear what charges, if any, Soliman was facing.
But the detention sparked immediate condemnation from Egyptian human rights activists, who say they are being subjected to a severe government clampdown targeting organisations accused of fomenting unrest during the 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), most involved in rights work, are embroiled in a long-running investigation, accused of receiving foreign funds to sow chaos. An Egyptian rights lawyer said Soliman’s arrest warrant had been issued by the judge who is presiding over that case.
“Why would they arrest her from her house?” asked Dalia Abdel-Hamid, a fellow women’s rights activist and researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
“It’s so humiliating, not just for her but for all civil society and human rights activists.”
Abdel-Hamid said that in other arrests in connection with Egypt’s “foreign funding case” – the targeting of civil society organisations accused by the state of receiving “illegal” foreign funding – the accused were not taken from their homes.
“This is an aggressive step up from what has happened previously,” she added. “We don’t know what this will mean or what the repercussions of this will be.”
Soliman previously stood trial after witnessing the murder of socialist protester Shaimaa al-Sabbagh by Egyptian police in January 2015. She and 16 others were later acquitted.
Mohamed Lotfy, of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said Soliman’s arrest represented “a chilling escalation against independent civil society in Egypt”.
“Azza’s arrest unmasks the government’s animosity not just to human rights defenders in general, but also to the independent Egyptian feminist movement,” he said.
Najia Bounaim, deputy campaigns director at Amnesty International’s Tunis office, said the arrest was “the latest chilling example of the Egyptian authorities’ systematic persecution of independent human rights defenders.”
“We believe she has been arrested for her legitimate human rights work and must be released immediately and unconditionally,” she said. “Her arrest marks an escalation in the use of a string of repressive tactics designed to intimidate her and other critical voices into silence.
“There is a real risk that her arrest could signal an accelerating crackdown with many other human rights defenders subject to the same inquiry facing the risk of imminent arrest.”
In September, a court froze the assets of five prominent human rights activists and three NGOs, paving the way for criminal proceedings that could lead to life sentences.
NGOs say they have felt exposed since late 2011, when authorities raided 17 pro-democracy and rights groups. In 2013, a court ordered the closure of several foreign groups, including the US-based Freedom House, and gave jail sentences to 43 NGO staff including 15 Americans who fled.
A case against dozens of Egyptian NGOs and lawyers was never closed but remained largely dormant until this year.
In November, parliament passed a law to regulate NGOs, which human rights groups say in effect bans their work and makes it harder for development groups and charities to operate.
The bill bans domestic and foreign groups from engaging in political activities or anything that harms national security, public order, public morals or public health – a means, critics say, to stifle dissent.