Arrest of Egyptian Human Rights Advocates

Tuesday 8th December 2020

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
17:57
Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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I rise to speak in support of Karim Ennarah, the husband of my constituent Jessica Kelly. I also want to highlight the widespread human rights abuses under the current Egyptian regime.

Karim Ennarah works for a human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He holds a master’s degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and was a Chevening scholar. He has lots of UK connections as well as family connections.

Karim Ennarah was arrested on Wednesday 18 November by Egyptian security services at a beach café while he was on a break in Dahab on the Sinai peninsula. His colleague, Mohammed Basheer, was also arrested, on 15 November, and the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Gasser Abdel-Razek, was arrested in Cairo on 19 November. This follows an arrest earlier in the year of another of their colleagues.

The three arrests happened following a meeting with EIPR that was initiated by diplomats from Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, as well as the chargés d’affaires of Canada, Norway and Sweden and the deputy ambassador of the United Kingdom. At that meeting, the diplomats and the EIPR discussed the human rights situation in Egypt.

The arrests of Karim Ennarah and his colleagues were a co-ordinated crackdown on those campaigning for human rights issues. The United Nations human rights agency called the arrests “chilling”. Karim was held without trial in the notorious Tora prison. That is a complex known for the torture of political prisoners, where the cells are designed never to see sunlight. Those who have experienced it tell of cells without beds, the denial of medical attention, floors crawling with insects, and temperatures soaring to unbearable highs before crashing to freezing cold. Political prisoners are routinely starved, beaten and abused.

On 4 December, after a global outcry and pressure on the Egyptian regime, the three were released from prison, but they remain in Egypt under close surveillance and their assets have been frozen by order of the courts. We are yet to hear whether they are being held under any other conditions, as the investigation continues to hang over them. Karim’s wife, Jessica Kelly, with support from campaigners, human rights organisations and nearly 150,000 people who signed a petition, alongside a number of celebrities, has led the global efforts to secure his release and that of his colleagues. She deserves our praise and admiration for her incredible fortitude in such trying circumstances.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this case to the main Chamber for our consideration. Does she agree that we have an obligation to use all diplomatic procedures available to encourage those we have relationships with to treat with basic human rights those who oppose them, and that the message from this House tonight is that the way human rights are handled has a bearing on the strength of our ties with other nations that abuse human rights?

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The strength of our partnership should be judged by the ability to provide constructive criticism to Governments who are responsible for human rights violations, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what work our Government are doing to ensure that the Egyptian Government, as well as other Governments who have been responsible for significant human rights violations, take action to bring an end to such violations.

Karim’s wife, Jessica Kelly, was instrumental in campaigning for her husband’s release and that of his colleagues. We are all relieved to hear about their release, but there are a number of outstanding issues. What matters now is that the Egyptian Government allow Karim to leave the country to come to the UK where he can be reunited with his wife. I would be grateful if the Minister provided an update on whether that will be possible and what action our embassy is taking to enable Karim to be reunited with his wife in the UK.

The men were also accused of having links to terror organisations and of spreading fake news on social media, but let us be crystal clear that they were arrested for shining the spotlight on the human rights abuses of that regime.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware of the case of Giulio Regeni, the Cambridge PhD student who was researching trade unions in Cairo. He was brutally murdered five years ago. Does she agree that it is in the interests of everyone, including the Egyptian Government, that, in the end, the truth comes out and justice is done, and is seen to be done?

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that case and I could not agree with him more. It is really important that the European Union and the UK work together to ensure that such actions of the Egyptian Government are confronted, and that Giulio’s family get the justice they deserve.

Yet again, we see that repressive regimes—in this case, Egypt—behave far worse if they think the world is not watching and holding them to account. It is critical that we work with our partners to ensure that we hold Governments such as the Egyptian Government to account for human rights violations, and that action is taken to bring an end to such violations. We must ensure that we shine a spotlight—in the most aggressive way possible through diplomatic means and through our relationships—to ensure that these kinds of arbitrary arrest and detention do not happen to people who are fighting for the rights of others.

This regime came to power in 2013 in a military coup, dissolving the constitution and dismissing the opposition. Since then, there has been widespread concern about human rights violations, some of which have been raised this evening. On 14 August 2013, Egyptian security forces, under the command of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, raided two camps of protesters in Cairo. Human Rights Watch described these raids and the subsequent massacres as

“one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history”.

It also pointed to the fact that over 900 people were killed during the massacre.

Human rights activists and observers report that the regime has employed arbitrary imprisonment, torture, extrajudicial killings, home demolitions, forced disappearances and sexual violence against its opponents. The families of Egyptians abroad have been detained to stifle criticism of the Government. There are not free and fair elections; al-Sisi won the 2014 election with 97% of the vote. All this evidence of thuggery, intimidation, violence and torture makes the bravery of human rights defenders even more apparent. They are truly courageous and heroic, risking their lives to protect the rights of others. It is right that we offer them whatever support we can, and it is necessary and right that our Government do all they can to provide the support that they need.

Jessica Kelly, her family and I are grateful to the Foreign Secretary for the statement that he made immediately after the arrests, and for the representation that he and his Ministers made to their Egyptian counterparts to help to secure the release of Karim Ennarah and two of his colleagues. As I mentioned, another colleague, Patrick Zaki, remains in detention, and his term has just been extended by another 45 days by the Egyptian courts. I would be grateful if the Minister provided an update on that case and whether further representations have been made to secure his release.

I would also be grateful if the Minister told us what further representations he is making to ensure that the Egyptian Government take seriously our concerns, the UK Government’s concern and the international concerns about human rights abuses and about the wider record of the Egyptian Government on human rights violations and the culture of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture of human rights defenders. Will he update the House on what efforts our Government are making, working with our European counterparts and other international partners, to apply diplomatic pressure on the Egyptian Government to ensure that these kinds of human rights violation are brought to an end?

This case was highlighted to me because the husband of a British national—my constituent—was arrested, alongside his colleagues, but for every one of those cases, there are many others that do not get the attention that they should be getting. We are all grateful to Jessica Kelly and her family, and to all those who have campaigned for the release of her husband and his two colleagues, but it is vital that our Government work with our international partners to ensure that all those who are being locked up, tortured and punished for standing up for human rights are protected. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed those concerns.

18:09
James Cleverly Portrait The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) for securing this debate and to the Members who have intervened for making important points during her speech. I have no doubt that the whole House will have welcomed the release on 3 December of three men, Mohammed Basheer, Karim Ennarah, and Gasser Abdel-Razek, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work she has done and the active role she has played in advocating for the men’s release. I also pay tribute to the family, friends and supporters of the three men, particularly her constituent, Jessica Kelly, who have campaigned tirelessly on their behalf and worked so hard to secure their release.

It is the eve of International Human Rights Defenders Day, and these courageous people must be allowed to carry out their work without fear of arrest or reprisal. The UK Government will stand up for human rights defenders, wherever they are.

On the specific case, although the release of the three men is welcome news, we understand that, as the hon. Lady said, the case is not yet closed. We will continue to take a close interest and to explain why we, the UK Government, think it is vital that they and the EIPR continue to play their vital role as an independent voice on human rights in Egypt. We remain concerned about the application of anti-terrorism legislation in this and other such cases. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and where we have concerns we will raise them. The hon. Lady made points about prison conditions, and we have not hesitated and will never hesitate to raise the issue of prison conditions and treatment of detainees with the Egyptian authorities whenever necessary, including in this case.

Furthermore, although I welcome the swift and positive developments in this case, I want to stress the Government’s broader commitment to human rights defenders and to the protection and promotion of human rights. Civil and political rights, including fair access to justice, must be respected in Egypt and around the world.

It is no secret that the UK wants to see better protection of human rights in Egypt. We have an ongoing dialogue with Egypt on this matter. The strength of our bilateral relations with Egypt allows us to speak frankly, and where we have concerns we always raise them. We work closely with Egypt at ministerial and official levels on a range of bilateral priorities, including trade and economic development, tourism, education and cultural co-operation. We also work together on a range of regional and global issues that matter to both our countries, including climate change, combating covid-19 and conflict resolution, including the conflict in Libya. As I say, that co-operation does give us the opportunity to speak with them on more difficult and sensitive issues, as we did in the case we are speaking about today.

The Government took swift and decisive action on the EIPR case. On 19 November, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke directly to his Egyptian counterpart to register our deep concerns about this arrest. Indeed, he was the first Foreign Minister to do so. Senior officials, including our ambassador in Cairo, continued to underline these concerns, and the British embassy in Cairo remained in regular contact throughout with the EIPR, the detainees’ lawyers and the British family of Karim Ennarah. Naturally, the UK also worked closely with international partners who shared our concern, including European partners, as the hon. Lady mentioned. In Cairo, the embassy worked closely with like-minded partners to take joint action. In Geneva, the UK’s human rights ambassador has been active in organising briefings on the case with civil society and other like-minded states.

The UK wants to see Egypt thrive. We want better protection for Egyptians’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression, and more space for NGOs and civil society is an essential part of that. It is also in the UK’s interest to co-operate with Egypt on other issues that matter to both countries, such as strengthening trade, tackling climate change, working together to address our shared security challenges and concerns, and protecting regional stability. Trade between the UK and Egypt was worth £3.5 billion in 2019, and the association agreement that we signed on 5 December, to ensure continuity of bilateral trade after the end of the transition period on 31 December, provides a new framework to boost trade and help both countries to build back better after our fight against the covid-19 pandemic.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali
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As I said, I am grateful for the interventions the Foreign Secretary has made as well, and I know the family are. Will the Minister take away my point about Patrick Zaki, a colleague of Jessica’s husband, as he is still in prison? I recognise what the Minister is saying about the work that the UK Government are doing on human rights issues, but given our strong trade ties, can he reassure the House that we are not going to overlook the importance of human rights, in the interests of needing to have strong trading relationships?

James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
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I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, which spurs me to clarify why I made the points about the bilateral economic relationship. While making representations to the Egyptian authorities about the cases she raised, we were simultaneously working towards this closer economic partnership. I was hoping to get across that we do not regard these as mutually exclusive. We can work closely with international partners, including our partnership with Egypt, while simultaneously raising our concerns about human rights and individuals who have been incarcerated. The two go hand in hand, rather than being in contradiction to each other.

We will continue to advocate. I am concerned about the reports that Karim appears not to have been allowed to leave the country and be reunited with his wife. Human rights defenders make an essential contribution. They are important and we will continue to call on the Egyptian authorities to allow Karim to be able to conduct his work and his life unimpeded.

Therefore, the Government are totally committed to taking action to promote and protect human rights. Wherever and whenever we have concerns, we will raise them. Everywhere in the world, human rights defenders should be able to carry out their work without fear of arrest or reprisal. We welcome the release of Mohammed Basheer, Karim Ennarah and Gasser Abdel-Rasek from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and we expect them to be able to go unmolested from now on. We will continue to have regular and frank discussions with the Government of Egypt on human rights issues.

Question put and agreed to.

18:19
House adjourned.