How Egypt’s NGO trial made me an international fugitive

Defendants in Egypt's NGO trial held in cages during proceedings (Image: Al Jazeera English/YouTube)

Defendants in Egypt’s NGO trial held in cages during proceedings (Image: Al Jazeera English/YouTube)

In an apparent attempt to crackdown on criticism of Egyptian authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country have been given an extra 45 days (previously, NGOs were given until 2 Sept) to register with the government, or risk being shut down or prosecuted. This action is being taken under the much-criticised Law 84, passed  by former president Hosni Mubarak. It allows the government to dissolve organisations, freeze their assets, confiscate their property and block their funding, without judicial review. At the same time a new law concerning NGOs has been proposed, under which activists face 15 years in prison and fines of over £8,000 for activities such as operating without a licence or working with international groups without permission

Independent groups in Egypt have been targeted by authorities for many years. In 2012, a group of 43 Egyptian and foreign NGO workers were convicted of operating without a licence and receiving foreign funding, in the widely condemned “NGO trial“. Twenty-seven of the defendants were tried in absentia, and have so far avoided serving the five-year sentences handed down to them. But being convicted as an NGO worker in Egypt has consequences far beyond that country’s borders, as Michelle Betz, one of the 27, writes. 

It was bad enough to learn that I had been indicted by Egypt in the 2012 NGO case but only a short time later my world seemed to collapse around me.

I was in the US Virgin Islands enjoying my first holiday in over a year when I received an unexpected phone call informing me that Egyptian officials had gone to Interpol, the world’s largest international police organisation, asking them to issue red notices on me (and several others) as they considered me a “fugitive” and wanted me to face trial in Cairo; this despite the fact that I had never actually worked in Egypt.

I had no idea what a red notice was or what the implications were, but I quickly learned just how serious this situation was going to be. An email from the head of the NGO for which I had been consulting said: “I just got off the call with the [US] government and I must ask you all to refrain from travel for the time being. Michelle, you are in the US Virgin Islands, so returning home should not be a problem. If you have other travels plans, you need to put them on hold.”

My work in media development and press freedom requires frequent travel around the world. If I couldn’t travel, I couldn’t work. My career came to a screaming halt. I scrambled to find someone to take my place for contracts I was obliged to fill. All the while, I struggled to get my head around the fact that I was “wanted” and considered a “criminal”. The situation soon went from bad to worse. I learned that not only had Egypt requested that Interpol put out a red notice calling for my arrest and extradition from wherever I might be in the world; they also put out a little known, and not frequently discussed, diffusion notice.

Having never been accused of any crimes in my life, I began educating myself on what red notices and diffusions are, the power of Interpol and its member states, and the inability of regular people, such as me, to obtain due process or even receive basic information about their cases.

What I learned shocked me. Member countries of Interpol can unilaterally put out a so-called diffusion notice without any review from Interpol or even the country of citizenship of the alleged criminal. This notice is immediately sent to all subscribers of the Interpol database and puts countries on notice they should hold and seek extradition of the individuals named. I learned that, as in my case, with no review and no due process, this system has reportedly become rife with abuses in harassment of individuals for political crimes.

At that point, my quest to seek answers to legal questions such as extradition, red notices and diffusion became truly farcical. I tried to contact Interpol as the US Justice Department would not answer my questions. Justice said that I had to turn to my “local law enforcement agency” — in this case, Washington, DC Metro Police Department (MPD) — and Interpol does not take calls from individuals. The Interpol website offers no advice or support for those facing difficulties with their system. After speaking to numerous people at MPD, I was finally referred to a nice lady who, although sympathetic, didn’t even know what Interpol was, let alone the who the Interpol liaison at MPD was, if there even was one.

I repeatedly sought clarification from both the US Departments of Justice and State about what would trigger an airport stoppage due to a red notice or diffusion, my rights, who could help me, even on whether getting a new passport would help. I asked if anybody could help me to determine if there were countries I could safety travel to without fear of extradition. These queries were never answered and more than two years later I still await answers.

It is ironic that in a news release dated 23 April 2012, Interpol stated that: “Anyone seeking the truth about Interpol’s involvement, or otherwise, in any matter should contact the organisation directly in order to ascertain the facts, rather than making statements based on ill-founded rumour and speculation.” Of course, the problem is that Interpol will not take calls from individuals (such as myself) to answer questions and ascertain facts.

In the end, apparently some behind the scenes negotiations occurred resulting in a statement by Interpol in which they asked member countries to erase the already issued diffusion notices from their databases. But I have no way of knowing if these notices were removed, how long they might remain active, or even if I am at risk of future diffusions from the Egyptian authorities.

In June 2013, we faced this situation anew as the Egyptian prosecutor publicly stated they will again seek extradition and put out international wanted notices through Interpol after my colleagues and I were given stiff sentences of five years hard labour. This came after being tried in absentia by what many have portrayed as a kangaroo court.

The past two and a half years have been incredibly stressful, mentally exhausting, frustrating and career-destroying in part due to the lack of information available from Interpol concerning my case. There is no accountability of this organisation and its procedures to which the US (and nearly 200 other countries) is a signatory.

Those of us who are being harassed by member states for political purposes, such as in the Egypt NGO case, have no access to due process and there is no transparency. And while our types of case may be a minority of those pursued using the instruments that Interpol provides, our stories need to be heard and the injustice we are facing needs to be addressed. Otherwise Interpol risks being misused as a tool for oppression by authoritarian and corrupt governments.

A version of this article has been published on Fair Trial International.