A female defender of women’s rights targeted by religious extremists: the lawsuit against Nawal El Saadaoui

20/11/2001
Press release
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Publication of a Judicial Observation Mission

The case against Nawal El Saadaoui fits in with the climate of intolerance prevailing in Egypt and stoked by Islamist thought, with silent consent from the authorities. It represents a permanent danger for freedoms of all sorts.

Nawal El Saadaoui, a historical symbol representing commitment to protection for the rights of women in Egypt was the victim of a very violent campaign orchestrated by Islamist extremists since 27 March of this year when an article was published on the rights of women that distorted her words. In April 2001 an lawyer, basing his request on old Moslem jurisprudence called the hisba, initiated legal action before the Cairo Civil Tribunal calling upon the court to annul the marriage of Nawal El Saadaoui and Sherif Hatata for heresy having caused apostasy.

The FIDH and the OMCT, within their joint program Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, mandated Ms. Alya Chérif Chammari, lawyer at the highest appeal court (Tunisia), as judicial observer, at the trial of Nawal El Saadaoui, which was held on 18 June 2001 at the Cairo Civil Tribunal.

On 30 July the case was thrown out of court for procedural reasons.

The lawsuit against Nawal El Saadaoui fits in with the present-day context marked by harassment against human rights defenders in Egypt. Actions by defenders are impeded by violations of freedom of assembly. Associations that accept foreign financing are automatically accused of having been bought by some foreign power; this conforms with the 1992 military decree no. 4 adopted by virtue of the 1981 law on the state of emergency. Hence it was that on 21 may 2001, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, director of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Human Rights was sentenced to 7 years in jail for having accepted funds from the European Union for his organization (see observatory report "legal and judicial assaults on human rights defenders in Egypt"). On 19 December he will be taken before the highest appeals court. Hafez Abu Sa’ada, Secretary General of the Egyptian organization for Human Rights (EOHR), and FIDH vice president is actually being prosecuted for having accepted a subsidy from the British embassy in 1998 supporting the actions of EOHR in favour of women. Furthermore, the parliament will soon receive a draft law on the right of assembly that, in the main, restates the provisions of law 153 dated 1999 on private associations and institutions which subjects NGOs to stricter control by the authorities and was judged unconstitutional in June 2000.

FIDH and OMCT strongly request the Egyptian authorities:
- to forbid recourse to hisba before the Egyptian courts;
- to take all necessary steps to prevent and eliminate all discrimination based on religion or belief;
- to immediately and unconditionally free Saad Eddin Ibrahim;
- to ensure that the draft law on associations, currently being discussed, abide by the provisions of the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on 9 December 1998;
- to respect the international instruments on the protection of human rights, to which Egypt is party;
- to invite Mrs. Hina Jilani, the U.N. Secretary General’s special representative on human rights defenders to come to Egypt.

Last, the Observatory urges the European Union’s member states, when ratifying the Agreement of Association with Egypt (whose Article 2 states that Party States must respect human rights and fundamental freedoms), to evaluate and take into account the measures taken by the Egyptian authorities to abide by their international obligations concerning human rights.

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