Asset freezes in Egypt have paved the way for the criminal prosecution of prominent human rights activists. Observers fear the case is a signal that the state's assault on civil society may escalate.
An Egyptian court on Saturday imposed an asset freeze on five prominent human rights activists and three nongovernmental organizations, in the latest crackdown on civil society in the country.
The cases date back to 2011, when authorities opened investigations into multiple NGOs and human rights activists for allegedly receiving foreign funds to sow chaos and instability in the most populous Arab state.
Saturday's decision opens the way for criminal proceedings against Hossam Bahgat, who founded the leading Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Gamal Eid, Bahey el-Din Hassan, Mostafa al-Hassan and Abdel Hafez al-Tayel.
Bahey el-Din Hassan's Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Mostafa al-Hassan's Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and the Egyptian Centre for the Right to Education are the NGOs.
The case had remained dormant for a while until this year. If convicted, they could face life imprisonment.
"We know from the start the case is political and the aim is revenge against NGOs that expose the state's abuses," said Eid, founder and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.
Rights group Amnesty International condemned the verdict, calling it "politically motivated."
"The Egyptian authorities are using this case as a way to crush the country's human rights movement. Meanwhile, the government's brutal crackdown on dissent shows no signs of stopping, with enforced disappearances and torture becoming a matter of state policy. Egypt needs these critical voices more than ever," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa director.
Egypt became the target of international commendation in 2011 when after former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in protests, the military targeted several Western and domestic NGOs and their staff.
In 2013, a court sentenced 43 NGO staff members to jail terms of up to five years and closed down several foreign pro-democracy groups. Fifteen NGO staff members were foreigners and tried in absentia.
A month later, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi led the military in overthrowing Islamist then-President Mohamed Morsi.
The coup led to a wide-ranging crackdown on the Islamist opposition and rights activists.
cw/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)