Activist dedicates rights award to 'tortured, imprisoned' Egyptians

CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian activist who is under criminal investigation for his human rights work on Tuesday dedicated an international rights award to the thousands of Egyptians he said had been tortured or imprisoned since veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.

Mohamed Zaree, 37, the Egypt office director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, won the Martin Ennals Award, a prize given each year by a jury of 10 global rights groups.

He is banned from traveling abroad so could not collect the award in person in Geneva, but spoke to the audience on Tuesday by video conference.

“I do not view this honor as recognition of my work alone,” Zaree said.

“Instead, this award belongs to the tens of thousands of Egyptian citizens who have been tortured, imprisoned, disappeared or killed over the last six years for nothing more than standing up to corruption and tyranny through peaceful means.”

Egyptian rights activists accuse President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of erasing freedoms won in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Last year authorities reopened an investigation into non-governmental organizations that document abuses, which the government accuses of receiving foreign funding to spread chaos

Since seizing power in mid-2013 from the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi has presided over a crackdown on his Islamist opponents that has seen hundreds killed and many thousands jailed.

But the dragnet has since widened to include secular and liberal activists at the forefront of the 2011 uprising. Egypt says the measures are necessary for national security and that hundreds of soldiers and police have been killed.

Zaree’s seat was empty in the audience but his wife, Shymaa Abd El Aziz, and two school-age daughters received the award presented by Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, on his behalf.

He faces charges that could carry a life in prison sentence for “receiving funds from foreign entities to harm national security” and has been banned from travel since May 2016.

His wife tearfully said the last time he was interrogated they lied to their daughters and said he was going somewhere for work. She said that him winning the award gave them the courage to tell them the truth if he was arrested.

“Within the context of the renewed crackdown on Egyptian human rights organizations, he has become a leading figure in Egypt’s human rights movement,” the awards jury said.

Government pressure forced the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies to relocate its headquarters to Tunisia in 2014.

The runners-up for the Martin Ennals Award were Karla Avelar, who founded El Salvador’s first organization of transgender women, and FreeThe5KH, five Cambodian human rights activists who were recently released. The award’s first recipient in 1994 was Chinese dissident Harry Wu.

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Robin Pomeroy