As Egypt frees prisoners, fears grow for prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah

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CAIRO — The green tote bag contained items Laila Soueif hoped to bring to her imprisoned son: two clean shirts, a sheet, a small radio, batteries, nail clippers and three books, including a comic book.

But when she recently tried to deliver them to Tora prison in Cairo, she said, she was told the items were not allowed inside.

The refusal to allow documents to be read sparked Soueif’s latest battle with Egypt’s justice system which has held his son, Alaa Abdel Fattah, 40, behind bars for much of the past decade – ultimately sparking a stalemate between mother and son and the guards overseeing their limited visits.

President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s government recently freed a handful of the thousands of prisoners embroiled in a sweeping crackdown on free speech over the past decade, including journalists. The releases come as Egypt faces new pressures over human rights abuses. Earlier this year, the Biden administration withheld some aid to Egypt over these concerns.

In response, Sisi’s administration attempted to take steps to polish his image. Late last year, he launched a national human rights strategy and officially ended the country’s long-standing state of emergency. The release of some political prisoners in recent weeks has coincided with national holidays that often trigger such gestures. Sisi also announced that he would reinstate a presidential pardon committee and called for “political dialogue”.

But Abdel Fattah – one of Egypt’s most famous imprisoned dissidents and a symbol of the country’s 2011 uprising – has yet to win a reprieve, heightening concerns among human rights campaigners that the The government’s recent actions do not symbolize significant change and instead aim to appease the international community.

Prisoner advocates have repeatedly sounded the alarm over Egypt’s prolonged use of pretrial detention. Abdel Fattah spent more than two years in this detention but is currently serving a five-year sentence. He went on a hunger strike last month to protest the conditions of his incarceration — “to have the right to books, exercise and sunshine,” novelist Ahdaf Soueif, his aunt, wrote on Facebook this week.

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Hussein Baoumi, Egypt and Libya researcher at Amnesty International, said the Egyptian government “always promises that there will be more releases, but what is certain and what we know for certain is that ‘he never signals a change in policy,’ he said.

“We of course celebrate that they are free,” he said of those recently freed. But, he added, “they should never have been imprisoned.”

The fate of an economics researcher who died in custody in Egypt in March has added to families’ concerns for those who remain locked up. The researcher, Ayman Hadhoud, had openly criticized the government before being arrested in February. His family was not informed of his death until April, a month after it was recorded on his death certificate, according to Human Rights Watch.

Authorities said the cause was cardiac arrest, but his brother said Hadhoud’s body showed signs of physical abuse when he retrieved it from the morgue. Egypt’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement last month that Hadhoud’s body “showed no signs of injury that could indicate criminal activity, violence, resistance or any other suspicious indication.”

Abdel Fattah’s family say he continues to be denied basic rights in prison, where he is serving a five-year sentence for spreading ‘false news that undermines national security’ – charges that groups advocacy have called it false. He was convicted in December, along with his former lawyer, Mohamed al-Baqer, and a blogger, Mohamed Ibrahim, nicknamed “Oxygen”, both sentenced to four years in prison on the same charges. The US State Department then said it was “disappointed by the verdicts”.

Today, as Abdel Fattah’s detention drags on, says Laila Soueif, he is increasingly discouraged by his prospects.

In early April, he went on a hunger strike and hasn’t eaten solid food since. During her visits last week, Soueif said, she could see her weight loss in the way her blue jumpsuit seemed to slip off her slim figure.

” He’s fed up. He is desperate,” Soueif said in an interview at his home last week. “He says he would rather die than continue to live this way.”

Abdel Fattah recently claimed dual British nationality through his British-born mother and is now seeking consular visits, hoping they will increase pressure on Egypt to improve its conditions of detention or releases him.

In response to an inquiry into the case of Abdel Fattah, the UK Foreign Office said in a text message that it “stands with the family of a British national detained in Egypt and urgently requests access consular to him. We are in contact with the Egyptian authorities about his case.

A spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, Ramy Shaath, an Egyptian Palestinian detained since 2019, was airlifted out of Egypt and handed over to the custody of Palestinian officials, before flying to meet his wife in France, on the condition that he renounces his Egyptian citizenship.

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“This UK process could potentially get Alaa out of jail,” Soueif said. But, she added, “I’m afraid something bad will happen before we can have that result.”

This month, his sister Sanaa Seif – herself recently released from prison – is touring the United States to promote Abdel Fattah’s new book “You Have Not Been Defeated Yet”. The collection of writings includes some that were smuggled out of his prison cell.

And while his sister promotes her writing abroad, Abdel Fattah still fights for access to basic reading materials in prison. When authorities refused to deposit his mother’s books last month, Abdel Fattah in turn refused to leave the visiting room where he sometimes sees Soueif during his visits. Eventually, Soueif said, he was forced to return to his cell.

A few days later, when Soueif was allowed another visit, due to a public holiday, they both refused to leave until he was allowed to consult the books. For hours, they sat on opposite sides of the glass partition that separates them, arguing with the guards until, Soueif said, the manager told her she might lose visitation rights. if she didn’t get out of the building. Even if they cannot obtain his immediate release from prison, his family members hope to at least improve his living conditions.

But soon after, his sister Mona Seif said, they also banned Abdel Fattah from sending or receiving letters in prison, cutting off the family’s main form of communication with him.

And he never got the books – although his mother wasn’t done trying.

“If you deprive us of certain rights, we are going to give you a headache,” Soueif said. “It’s the least we can do.”

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