The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)
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.