Egypt rights groups blast raids on NGO offices

December 30, 2011 - 8:41 AM
Mideast Egypt

Egyptian military stand guard as officials raid one of the non-governmental organization offices in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Dec. 29, 2011. Egyptian soldiers and police stormed non-governmental organization offices throughout the country on Thursday, banning employees inside from leaving while they interrogated them and searched through computer files, an activist and security official said. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

CAIRO (AP) — Several Egyptian rights groups on Friday accused the country's ruling military council of using "repressive tools" of the deposed regime in waging an "unprecedented campaign" against pro-democracy organizations.

The groups' joint statement came just hours after security forces stormed offices of 10 rights organizations, including several based in the United States. The Interior Ministry said the raids were part of the investigation into foreign funding of rights groups.

The military, which took over control after a popular uprising toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February, has often accused the groups of promoting protests with the help of funds from abroad.

The raids drew an angry reaction from U.S. Also, German officials summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Berlin to complain about a raid on a German organization in Cairo, and the U.N. human rights office criticized Egypt's "unnecessarily heavy-handed measures" against the groups, calling on Egypt's rulers to allow them to "carry out their important work without undue interference."

Friday's statement, signed by 28 Egyptian rights groups, said the raids were part of a clampdown against leaders of the uprising and were an attempt to "liquidate" the revolution.

"The military council is using Mubarak's authoritarian and repressive tools ... in an even more dangerous and uglier way," the statement read. The raids "are an unprecedented campaign aimed at covering up big failures of the military council in managing the transition period."

An official with the Justice Ministry's inspection teams said computers and cash were confiscated during the raids. He said an earlier investigation revealed these groups had received up to $100 million from abroad, then deposited the money in different Egyptian banks using names of illiterate Egyptians for the fake accounts.

In another raid Thursday, police arrested a member of the April 6 group, a youth movement at the helm of the anti-Mubarak protests. A security official said hashish and about $4,000 were found at Ahmed el-Salkawi's house.

April 6 was among the groups the military had accused of receiving foreign funds and using the money to promote for a "foreign agenda." Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

The Egyptian military is by far the largest recipient of foreign funds in Egypt, getting about $1.3 billion dollars annually in U.S. security assistance for more than 30 years.

The military appears concerned that foreign funding could strengthen the liberal groups behind Egypt's uprising at the expense of the military's own vast power.

State media launched a campaign against U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson after her remarks about funding NGOs to promote democracy. The July 31 issue of a state-run October Magazine featured a cover depicting Patterson holding a burning wad of dollars to the wick of a bomb wrapped in an American flag. The headline read: "The ambassador from hell who lit a fire in Tahrir," a reference to the Cairo square that was the focus of mass protests.

Among the offices which were raided the U.S.-headquartered National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, which is observing Egypt's ongoing parliamentary elections, as well as Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank with links to Chancellor Angela Merkel's party.

German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said Egypt's ambassador in Berlin was summoned to the ministry on Friday to hear a complaint.

Germany's Development Aid Minister Dirk Niebel called on Egypt "immediately to ensure the foundations' unhindered work and clear up completely what happened."

The Obama administration demanded Egyptian authorities halt the raids, saying they are "inconsistent" with long-standing U.S-Egypt cooperation.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East have spoken to Egyptian officials about the situation and "made very clear that this issue needs immediate attention."

The NDI said it was "deeply troubled" by Egyptian security forces raiding its offices in Cairo, Alexandria and Assiut without explanation, though the group has been operating in Egypt since 2005 supporting political parties and civic groups.

"Cracking down on organizations whose sole purpose is to support the democratic process during Egypt's historic transition sends a disturbing signal," said NDI President Kenneth Wollack in a statement.

The raids on the NGOs were the first since Mubarak's ouster. Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid has accused around 300 nonprofit groups of receiving unauthorized foreign funding and using the money to encourage protesters.

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Additional reporting by Geir Moulson in Berlin and John Heilprin in Geneva.