WINNER OF Martin Ennals Award 2017
Mohamed Zaree is a devoted activist and legal expert specializing in human rights advocacy with an emphasis on freedom of expression and association. He is also known for his role as the Egypt Country Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). Following the crackdown on Egyptian human rights organizations, Zaree took over the role of CIHRS Egypt Office Director. Government pressure on CIHRS compelled the institute to relocate its headquarters to Tunis in 2014. Due to his tireless advocacy for human rights, Zaree is currently under investigation with a high risk of prosecution and life imprisonment.
|In recent years, the Egyptian government has been escalating its pressure on human rights defenders. Human rights NGOs and defenders are imperiled by a rising wave of legal and extrajudicial threats, harassment, and intimidation by the state. Despite this, Zaree leads CIHRS’ research on human rights issues and helps to coordinate advocacy initiatives in Egypt. Zaree has also been outspoken in the media, engaging in public dialogue on human rights issues. He coordinates and maintains the Forum of Independent Egyptian Human Rights NGOs, a network created by CIHRS in 2007 to bring human rights groups together in Egypt. During this critical period for civil society, Zaree’s initiatives have helped NGOs to develop common approaches to human rights issues in Egypt.
Zaree is an ardent advocate for the freedom of association in Egypt. Since 2012, he has represented CIHRS in official committees charged with drafting a new NGO law for Egypt. Despite the hostile environment toward civil society, Zaree has persisted in advocating for the freedom of association with various Ministries under SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), and the Presidencies of Mohammad Morsi and Adly Mansour. He spoke and engaged in debates in the Egyptian Parliament about the very restrictive NGO law (Law 84/2002), now superseded by the even more restrictive 70/2017 law.
Egypt’s government did not welcome Zaree’s leadership role in the battle against human rights violations in Egypt. While at the airport to board a flight on May 26th 2016, Zaree was informed that he was banned from traveling outside Egypt by order of the investigative judge in case 173/2011, commonly known as the “Foreign Funding Case against NGOs.” One year after his travel ban – in May 2017 – the investigative judge pressed three charges, including two felonies, against Zaree; and released him under an exorbitant bail. The charges were a clear case of reprisal against him for his work on the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR), and his advocacy and mobilization efforts. The Foreign Funding Case is a repressive tool used by the Egyptian government to restrict civil society, and the case carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment for Zaree if he is found guilty of receiving funds from abroad. At the time his travel ban was issued, Zaree was the seventh human rights defender and rights activist in Egypt to be banned from traveling outside Egypt in connection with this case.
Zaree responded to the ban by defiantly reaffirming his commitment to peaceful advocacy for human rights:
“I stand in the company of brave, steadfast individuals whose only crime has been to strive for basic freedom through peaceful means. (…) We have refused to give up. We understand increasing repression undermines the short-term stability of Egypt, and bodes ill for the future of our country.”
Zaree continues to play a leading role in combatting the state’s oppression against civil society, remaining a visible and steadfast presence in the human rights community. He is more active than ever in Egypt as a human rights defender, despite the relentless and escalating risk and persecution he faces on a daily basis.
Colleagues, comrades, and friends
Thank you for allowing me speak with you today, and celebrate the work and sacrifice of human rights defenders from around the world.
I am deeply honored and grateful to be recognized by the esteemed Martin Ennals Award, and profoundly humbled to be nominated alongside defenders like Karla Avelar and FreeThe5KH. You inspire me, and dare us all to dream of a better tomorrow. Thank you for your courage.
This award belongs to the many Egyptian human rights defenders standing bravely against the greatest threats they have ever faced since the emergence of the human rights movement in Egypt. In the midst unprecedented repression, they steadfastly endure in their struggle for freedom and dignity. They persevere in the face of constant attacks against them, including defamation campaigns, travel bans, asset freezes, torture, enforced disappearance, and the imminent threat of life imprisonment.
This award belongs to the dozens of Egyptian human rights organizations that the government is attempting to shut down, even as I speak; part of a systematic campaign to eradicate of one of the most dynamic human rights communities in the world.
This award also belongs to my colleagues and friends at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, who give me strength and support on a daily basis, as they do for many human rights defenders throughout the Arab region.
The nominees in this year’s ceremony represent the diverse threats increasingly faced by human rights defenders and communities in many places throughout the world. The case of Egypt is only one example. The Egyptian human rights movement is part of a global human rights movement, and that global movement is also under threat. And so we must begin to come together from all regions of the world and stand side by side if we are to emerge stronger from this critical moment in history.
For those in the audience tonight who are European citizens- our fates as citizens our also deeply connected. Your freedom and rights depend on also defending the freedom and rights of Egyptians. This is not just a catchy slogan; it is a reality unfolding before our eyes. Amnesty International recently warned of the threat of a “permanent state of emergency” forming in Europe, and we have all seen the steady rise of popular support for hate driven politics. These are only a shadow of what could be.
These recent events in Europe have in large part been driven by events in the Arab region- the collapse of states held together by brutal force instead of democratic legitimacy – followed by a mass exodus of desperate refugees. Extremist violence is nurtured by governments that do not allow peaceful dissent and in turn give rise to large-scale terrorist organizations that export their horrific violence across borders.
Yet, European policy makers continue to only pay lip-service to the importance of democracy and rights in my region- while clamoring to sell weapons and make profitable deals for a very narrow set of vested interests. By doing so, they not only betray the democratic values they have pledged to uphold- but also pave the way for the loss of your own liberty. I urge you all to demand your governments take courageous action to end this self-destructive cycle before it is too late, not just for people you may never meet but for your own family and friends.
In Egypt, as in many places— we must struggle not only to end human rights abuses, but also to resist the normalization of these abuses and acceptance of them as a routine part of daily life. I remember the first time an Egyptian court issued a judgment sentencing 529 people to death, my phone rang incessantly with journalists’ requests for comment. A month later, when another mass death sentence was issued for an even larger number of defendants, I received no call. I realized then that human travesty can become ordinary, something people will adjust to in time. My fears were confirmed when another 188 people were later sentenced to death and then another 110 people, and no one paid attention.
General Sisi, now President, assumed public office in Egypt determined to smother any public life or civic action, blocking every outlet for expression, whether for his opponents, independent voices, or even those who disapproved of his policies in silence. This he considered the surest way to prevent a repeat of the 2011 uprising demanding democratic rule and basic dignity. He has not learned the true lesson of Qaddafi or Assad. Libya continues to suffer from the negative consequences of Qaddafi’s rule; while Assad rules over the ashes of a destroyed Syria, a state that has killed more than one million of its own citizens.
Egypt faces undeniable security challenges. Terrorist attacks are no longer limited to Sinai, but have reached Cairo, Alexandria, and other provinces. But this does not seem to bother the Egyptian state. In fact, it provides an excuse to pass repressive laws in the name of combatting terrorism. For example, the new highly repressive NGO law that in effect outlaws independent civil society organizations was passed after the bombing of a church in Tanta and another in Alexandria.
The Egyptian state has proven to be a quite capable in using intelligence and spy technologies (the latter supplied by many democracies). Yet, it does not primarily deploy these capacities to capture terrorists or protect security patrols in Sinai. It instead uses them, for example, to target and arrest members of the LGBT community.
These are just a few examples in Egypt that highlight the issues that those that struggle against oppression around the world face, and which we must confront together as citizens from every walk of life.
Thank you once again for this honor, and I look forward to working with all of you for a better tomorrow.