Calls for release of prisoners grow in Egypt despite arrest campaign

Egyptian security forces launched a campaign of arrests against human rights activists, politicians and left-wing activists who had been calling for the release of prisoners in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

al-monitor Political activist Noha Kamal, daughter of parliament member Kamal Ahmed, seen in a picture uploaded April 1, 2020.  Photo by Twitter/@FreedomForEg.

Apr 15, 2020

CAIRO — Egyptian security forces over the last few days have arrested political and human rights activists in Cairo and in several Egyptian governorates who called for the release of prisoners and detainees in places of detention, as they fear the spread of the coronavirus and the threat it poses to the lives of prisoners.

The campaign included the arrest April 1 of prominent political activist Noha Kamal, daughter of Kamal Ahmed, a parliament member in the Alexandria governorate. 

Noha has become known by her father's name among political activists. She has a long history in political work and provides humanitarian aid to the families of prisoners of conscience and freedom of expression as part of her personal initiatives. 

Also among the arrested is prominent human rights lawyer Mohsen Bahnasi, who has been a lawyer for a number of political detainees during the past few years. He has called via his Facebook account for the immediate release of prisoners

After Bahnasi’s arrest, case No. 558 of 2020 was opened in late March. The Supreme State Security Prosecution filed charges against both Kamal and Bahnasi, among others, for joining a terrorist group and spreading false news aimed at smearing the reputation of Egypt.

A human rights lawyer who attended the investigation session with Bahnasi and Kamal as part of the defense team before the prosecution told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the case includes more than 20 activists who were arrested for their demands to release prisoners. The source said security forces have thus far refused to allow lawyers to view the papers and names of the accused or their places of detention.

The human rights lawyer said he works at a human rights center that receives daily reports whereby activists are arrested and placed in unknown locations simply because they brought up or asked for the release of detainees amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak.

“There is no precise figure when it comes to the number of detainees, but according to the data we were able to gather during the investigations with Kamal and Bahnasi, there are at least 20 detainees in the case [No. 558 of 2020]. Security authorities in Egypt refuse to reveal the details of their detention, but they all face the same charges,” he added.

Over the past two weeks, several initiatives saw the light and demanded the release of prisoners and detainees for fear of a COVID-19 outbreak among prisoners, especially considering the fact that prisons are overcrowded. However, Egyptian authorities seem to be responding to such demands with more arrests.

Spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville condemned in a statement issued April 4 Egyptian authorities’ continued punishing of human rights activists and their failure to consider demands calling for the release of prisoners.

“We are also concerned by reports the government has moved to quash criticism on social media and silence the work of human rights defenders and journalists focused on the COVID-19 pandemic,” Colville said.

“We advise that, rather than sanctioning critical voices through a punitive approach, the Egyptian authorities address disinformation by providing clear, reliable and fact-based information and seek to engage the population and empower civil society to fight the common threat of the pandemic,” he added.

On March 28, the public prosecution issued a statement announcing that it would impose legal sanctions on anyone who publishes false information or data related to the new COVID-19 virus or the threat it poses to citizens. This is the charge the detainees are facing.

Based on said decision, people who spread rumors could be sentenced to at least two years in prison and asked to pay a fine ranging between 100,000 Egyptian pounds (about $6,500) and 300,000 Egyptian pounds (about $20,000).

Medhat al-Zahid, head of the leftist Socialist Popular Alliance Party, condemned the arrest of individuals calling for the release of prisoners.

“Differences should be put aside during this crisis that everyone needs to face,” he told Al-Monitor.

Zahid said “the Socialist Popular Alliance Party launched an initiative April 1 calling for the release of financial wrongdoers, political detainees and convicts who do not pose a threat to society. We reiterate the need to decrease, not increase, the number of detainees.”

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights organization working in Egypt since 2004, also demanded the release of individuals detained on charges of calling for the release of prisoners.

In a statement issued April 6, the group said some individuals were arrested in their own homes on charges of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news and misusing social media, only because they used social media to call for reducing the number of prisoners held in penal institutions in Egypt.

The primary goal is to alleviate overcrowding in Egyptian prisons in an attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the statement added.

“We are concerned about the increasing number of prisoners in Egyptian penal institutions, and we call on the public prosecution to release the detainees held in connection with case 558 of 2020 and immediately drop the charges against them all,” the statement continued.

There are 68 prisons across Egypt, 26 of which were established under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule from 2014 to 2019. Although there are no local official statistics on the number of prisoners in Egypt, Human Rights Watch estimated in 2019 the presence of about 60,000 political prisoners. Meanwhile, journalists close to the state estimate the number to be at 110,000, including political detainees and criminals. 

Meanwhile, the state has yet to take any measures to protect the prisoners from the threat of a coronavirus outbreak inside jails, and prison officers and employees are still allowed to leave the jail, mingle with people and then return to their workplace, further raising the possibility of passing the virus to prisoners.

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