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Hollywood stars and U.S. politicians pile pressure on Egypt over arrest of civil rights leaders

The interview Egypt's government doesn't want on TV
The interview Egypt's government doesn't want... 01:06

Cairo — Egypt's government is coming under mounting pressure from Western politicians, human rights groups and some major celebrities over the arrest of civil rights campaigners. The Egyptian Public Prosecutor issued an order this week to freeze the financial assets of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the human rights organization said Monday, but it's the jailing of three of the group's leaders that has drawn the sharpest international rebuke.

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Egyptian civil rights activist Karim Ennarah, director of the criminal justice unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), is seen in a file photo posted to the freekarim.com website advocating for his release from prison on terrorism charges. He and two EIPR colleagues were arrested in November 2020.   FreeKarim.com

Karim Ennarah, director of EIPR's criminal justice unit, Mohamed Basheer, its administrative manager, and Executive Director Gasser Abdel Razek were arrested in mid-November. The organization believes at least one factor in their arrests was a meeting they joined a couple weeks earlier between EIPR and about a dozen ambassadors and senior diplomats from European countries to discuss human rights issues.  

All three men face charges of "joining a terrorist group and spreading false news." They were present at a hearing this week when a Cairo court said it would issue a ruling on Sunday over whether the prosecutor's order to freeze EIPR's assets should be upheld.

As Ennarah spent his 37th birthday in prison on Monday — the same day the prosecutor ordered his group's bank accounts to be frozen — he got birthday wishes and messages of solidarity from some big names, including British actors Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry.

"His only crime? To support human rights," Thomson said in her video message, urging others to visit the "freekarim.com" website and add their voices to the calls for Ennarah and his colleagues to be released.

Amnesty International cited the arrests in a Tuesday statement accusing the Egyptian government of human rights abuses. It noted an "alarming rise in executions" in Egypt, which EIPR has investigated and detailed in recent reports.  

Almost half a dozen celebrities have offered messages of support in videos featured on EIPR's YouTube page, and some prominent U.S. politicians have also joined the outcry, including Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden's pick for Secretary of State.

"Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime," Blinken said in a tweet. "Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights."

Former Democratic presidential candidates and current Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders also weighed in, with Sanders calling the detentions "an outrage."

"The crackdown on @EIPR and arrests of its leaders and staff by Egyptian security forces is unacceptable," Warren said in a tweet. "They should be immediately released and allowed to continue their important work defending human rights without interference."

Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson posted a video supporting the group, describing them as "the best of us." She called for the three men's immediate release and for the "bogus" charges against them to be dropped.

Scarlett Johansson: Detained EIPR staffers: 'are the best of us'. by المبادرة المصرية للحقوق الشخصية on YouTube

Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs balked at the international pressure, issuing two statements rejecting "interference" in domestic matters. The ministry described EIPR as "an entity operating illegally in the field of civil work," claiming that, "it is registered as a company while it exercises other activities" in violation of the law.

Hossam Bahgat, EIPR's founder and acting director, suggested there was irony in the government subjecting Executive Director Razek to what he said were the very prison conditions the group has been working to expose.

"Nothing and I mean nothing surprises me in #Egypt but can't get over the fact my friend Gasser was interrogated about @eipr "false" reports on poor prison conditions WHILE THEY SUBJECTED HIM TO THE CONDITIONS THESE REPORTS DOCUMENTED!! That's crazy even for Egypt," he said.

The level of attention that his organization's plight has garnered from as far away as Hollywood seemed to surprise Bahgat more than his own government's persecution of his colleagues.

"Look it's no longer the day we got sent to terrorism court," he said in a tweet replying to Johansson's message of solidarity. "It just became the day Scarlett Johansson said my name."

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