RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Egypt, prosecutors are asking a judge to freeze the assets of human rights activists and some of their family members - at least 11 people. It's part of a far-reaching case against domestic human rights groups in Egypt aimed at silencing critics. International human rights groups say it is the latest blow to the almost nonexistent space for freedom of expression there. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hossam Bahgat and Gamal Eid are among the most high-profile human rights defenders in Egypt. They've exposed human rights abuses and continually agitated for greater liberties. Bahgat founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and Eid founded the Arab Network for Human Rights Studies.
Now, their groups are accused of taking foreign funding for the purpose of harming national security, destabilizing Egypt and trying to destroy the regime. I spoke to Hossam Bahgat, who is also a prominent investigative journalist, before today's proceedings.
HOSSAM BAHGAT: We've known that this crackdown on independent human rights organizations was going to come at some point. Really, we've started bracing ourselves for it since the 2013 ouster of the former president and the arrival of this regime.
FADEL: Bahgat says first, the state silenced or co-opted media outlets, then shut down the political opposition by stopping protests and conducting mass arrests. And now, he says, the time for human rights groups and human rights defenders like himself has arrived.
BAHGAT: The bigger picture here is a regime that is completely paranoid, that is severely intolerant to any form of dissent or challenge, that is willing to use whatever it takes to silence all critical voices.
FADEL: Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has referred to what he calls an evil plot against Egypt. The investigation may be followed by charges against Bahgat, Eid and possibly many others that carry sentences of up to 25 years in prison. But even as international observers worry that this case may be the death blow to freedom of expression in Egypt, Bahgat disagrees.
BAHGAT: They might go underground. But we obviously don't need institutions and physical offices in order to continue to document, monitor and expose abuses committed by what is objectively the worst and most repressive regime that this country has ever had.
FADEL: He says human rights activists will not stop. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.
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