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FBI arrests man who allegedly spied on Egyptian president’s opponents

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(NEW YORK) -- An Egyptian American has been charged with acting as an illegal agent of Egypt as he "tracked and obtained information regarding political opponents" of the Egyptian president, federal prosecutors in New York said.

It's the latest example of an autocratic leader extending their grip beyond their borders to quash political dissent -- a hand that in recent years has even extended into the U.S., according to some analysts.

Pierre Girgis, 39, "operated at the direction and control of multiple employees of the Egyptian government," according to the criminal complaint, as he spied on critics of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian general who seized power in 2013.

Sisi has overseen a widespread crackdown on human rights in Egypt, which is among the least free countries in the world, according to the think tank Freedom House. Sisi's government has imprisoned tens of thousands of political prisoners, criminalized expressions of dissent and deployed security forces with impunity, according to human rights groups.

"At the behest of Egyptian officials, Girgis' alleged prohibited conduct included attempting to covertly gather non-public intelligence about the activities of political opponents of Egypt's president, and attempting to gain access for foreign officials to attend law enforcement-only trainings in Manhattan," U.S. attorney Damian Williams said in a statement.

Girgis is charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the attorney general of the United States and with conspiracy.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., has not yet responded to a request for comment. The government has previously denied harassing dissidents or defended arrests as critical to national security, and Sisi once claimed his government held no political prisoners.

Critics, such as the Freedom Initiative, have alleged that Sisi's repressive tactics now extend beyond Egypt's borders to target dissidents overseas.

"Mr. Girgis' activities are not isolated. Egypt has engaged in a pattern of intimidating and harassing rights defenders, journalists and the families of political prisoners in the U.S. for years," said Allison McManus, research director of the human rights organization founded by Mohamed Soltan.

Soltan, an Egyptian American, spent nearly two years in prison for protesting Sisi's 2013 seizure of power. He was tortured in prison, he said, and went on hunger strike to demand his release, but after being returned to the U.S., his outspoken advocacy has resulted in Egyptian authorities harassing his family, he claimed.

Soltan's father has been arrested by Egyptian authorities and has had no communication with his family since, according to Soltan, while five cousins have been arrested and released twice now. The Freedom Initiative alleged in a May 2021 report that at least a dozen American citizens have had family members back in Egypt detained throughout 2020, five of which were in direct response to their political activity in the U.S.

The State Department declined to comment on Girgis' case, saying it is an active law enforcement matter. But spokesperson Ned Price told ABC News, "We are seeking to hold to account countries that would pursue dissidents, that would undertake such activity extraterritorially."

Critics say that little has been done to punish Egypt, one of the United States' key Middle East allies and a major recipient of military aid.

The Biden administration withheld $130 million in military aid last fall, which human rights groups in a joint statement said "undermines the human rights of Egypt’s citizens and further erodes the standing of the United States."

Examples of this kind of "extraterritorial" activity by autocratic governments have grown in recent years, too.

The Saudi government ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Turkey, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko grounded a Ryanair flight to arrest a dissident blogger on board, and Russian agents poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom. Saudi Arabia claimed it was a rogue operation, while Russia denied any responsibility for Skripal's poisoning.

This is also not the first case of a foreign agent spying on dissidents in the U.S.

Last summer, the Department of Justice accused four Iranian citizens, including one intelligence agent, of attempting to kidnap activist and writer Masih Alinejad from her New York apartment. Federal prosecutors said the suspects were directed by the Iranian government to bring Alinejad back to Tehran because of her criticism of the government.

It's unclear what Girgis' information was being used for, if at all, but an Egyptian official allegedly made its value to the government clear in encrypted communications sent in 2018, according to the criminal complaint.

"You do a lot of good things," one message from an unnamed Egyptian official said, according to the complaint. "You have become an important source for them to collect information."

In a 2019 message, Girgis and the same Egyptian official reportedly discussed an upcoming trip of certain Egyptian officials to the United States.

"Tell me what you want me to do," Girgis asked his handler, according to the criminal complaint.

The Egyptian official responded by inquiring about Girgis' relationship with a particular U.S. law enforcement officer.

"Ask [the U.S. law enforcement officer] for something," the official reportedly said. "We want you to find out if there are any police trainings happening in Manhattan in the coming days, and if so, who are the people in charge of these trainings? We would like to attend."

Girgis surrendered Thursday morning to the FBI and was due to make an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court later in the day. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had arranged a lawyer.

 

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