Barely a month after the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence accused Egyptian authorities of torturing 600 prisoners, the government is trying to close the organization down.
On Wednesday, a policeman and a government bureaucrat showed up at the Nadeem Center's Cairo offices and accused the human rights group of violating its legal mandate. The officials carried with them a government order that demanded the Nadeem Center shut its doors. One of the Nadeem Center's lawyers says he was able to convince the police to delay the closure until next week, but the head of the division of the Egyptian Health Ministry that oversees NGO's, Dr. Saber Ghoneim, told reporters that his agents had since sealed the center's doors. For now, the status of Egypt's premier torture watchdog is unknown.
Phyciatrist Aida Seif al-Dawla, the center's director, called the government's actions "politically motivated," and pledged to resist any efforts to shut her center down permanently. "Unless they arrest us all, we will continue in our work as long as we remain out of prison," she said.
After ordering the center closed, Dr. Ghoneim accused it of providing services that are too "broad" and of straying outside it's legal mandate. An inspection of the facilities, he said, revealed that it did not have the proper equipment to function as a medical center. The Nadeem center countered in a statement on Facebook that it is indeed equipped to handle the psychological needs of its patients, and that raising awareness about the "implications of torture" falls well within its legal duties.
Though the Nadeem Center does provide medical services to individuals who've been tortured, but it is also part of a shrinking coalition of human rights organizations that dare to question the policies of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In a blistering report released on January 10, the Nadeem Center accused Egyptian authorities of killing 500 prisoners and torturing 600 others over the past year. Torture had become so widespread in Egypt, the report said, that human rights workers "cannot talk about individual cases given the amount of murder, torture, and disregard for human life" among Egypt's security forces.
The attempted closure of the Nadeem Center comes as international scrutiny is mounting over Egyptian authorities rampant use of torture. Earlier this month, Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni's body was found tossed beside an Egyptian highway — an autopsy showed broken ribs, signs of electrocution on his penis, and traumatic injuries all over his body, Though the Egyptian Ministry of Interior's denied involvement, anonymous officials have told the New York Times that Regini was indeed arrested before his body was found.
Though Regini's case received international attention, the torture of ordinary Egyptians has become routine — and the Nadeem Center is one of the only organizations that keeps tabs on those abuses. "We provide a service that no one else provides to the underprivileged," Al-Dawla explained.
The government's decision to shut down the Center, advocates say, appears to be an act of bureaucratic intimidation.
"This looks to us like a barefaced attempt to shut down an organisation which has been a bastion for human rights and a thorn in the side of the authorities for more than 20 years," said Said Boumedouha, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Program, in a statement.
"It's unconscionable for Egyptian authorities to shut down a clinic for torture victims, especially when Interior Ministry agents are committing rampant abuse of people in custody," Human Rights Watch's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said in a separate statement. "The Egyptian government should immediately revoke its closure of the Nadeem Center."
After the election of Sisi in 2014, Egypt's Ministry of Social Solidarity — the government organ that oversees non-government organizations — ordered all NGO's to register with the government, and staked out new powers to shutter groups that became too critical of the ruling regime. That forced many human rights organizations organizations to cut down on their activities — even the Nadeem Center had to shutter its legal clinic last year.
But self-censorship has not shielded rights groups from the government's scrutiny.
"In the last few months, we have seen academics detained at airports, cartoonists harassed for their artwork, and contemporary art centers shuttered," Mai El-Sadany a Fellow at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, told VICE News.
In Egypt, well-connected human rights activists who had been previously considered out-of-bounds for authorities are also becoming the target of intimidation. Hossam Baghat, one of Egypt's most well-known human rights advocates, was summoned by military intelligence last fall after he wrote critical articles about the military.
Aida Seif al-Dawla, Nadeem's director, is also an internationally recognized human rights defender, and is the winner of the 2003 Human Rights Watch Global Defenders award.
"The Egyptian authorities are smothering the country's leading human rights defenders one by one," Whitson said in her statement. "Closing the Nadeem Center would be a devastating blow to Egypt's human rights movement as well as victims of abuse."
While human rights groups are sounding the alarm over Egypt's mounting abuses, the Obama administration is trying to remove a provision that conditions US government aid to Egypt on Cairo's commitment to respecting human rights. Egypt receives over $1 billion in US aid a year, and typically a portion of that aid can be held back if Egypt is found to be violating its citizens' rights. The State Department can, however, issue a national security waiver that allows the aid to flow despite the abuses — that's what the Obama administration did last year. But last week, the White House released a budget that rolls back those human rights guarantees, eliminating the need for a waiver in the first place.
The State Department did not respond to request for comment about the closure of the Nadeem Center, or what effect the new foreign aid budget could have on Egypt's human rights record going forward.
Reem Saad and Mohammad Ezz contributed to this story