Despite its pledge in June 2022 to work ‘hard to secure his release’, the British government has failed to obtain the liberation of British-Egyptian writer Alaa Abd El-Fattah (LR, Feb 2018 & July 2022), who remains in prison in Egypt. Rishi Sunak met the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, at the COP27 summit in Sharm El-Sheikh ten months ago, but he obtained no assurances that Fattah would be released. More than a hundred MPs and peers have recently written to the foreign secretary to express concern over the lack of progress in the case.
Fattah is serving a five-year prison sentence in Egypt following a ‘grossly unfair’ trial before the Emergency State Security Court. The sentence, handed down in December 2021, followed his conviction on charges of ‘spreading false news’ and ‘misusing social media’, and has been condemned by leading international human rights organisations, including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. There is no right to appeal.
Fattah, together with his sisters Mona and Sanaa, gained UK citizenship through their mother, Laila Soueif, an academic who was born in London in 1956. His aunt is the award-winning novelist Ahdaf Soueif. Despite the family’s relentless campaigning, the UK government has failed to provide Fattah with consular visits. The family claim that he has been subjected to torture and ill-treatment on multiple occasions since his imprisonment. The Egyptian authorities have failed to adequately investigate these allegations, despite the Fattah family filing a series of complaints. For over two years, he was denied access to basic necessities, including a mattress, bedsheets, books and newspapers.
In July this year, Egyptian human rights advocates Mohamed El-Baqer and Patrick Zaki were granted presidential pardons following intensive international pressure, a day after a three-year sentence was handed down by the Emergency State Security Court against Zaki. A human rights lawyer, Baqer was arrested while defending Fattah in September 2019. Both faced similar charges and Baqer was eventually sentenced by the Emergency State Security Court to four years in prison. The presidential pardons and subsequent release of Baqer and Zaki indicate the effectiveness of international pressure on the Egyptian government, as well as highlighting how little the UK government has done to obtain Fattah’s release.
In April last year, Fattah began a partial hunger strike to protest against his unjust detention. Despite minimal improvements in his conditions since his transfer to a new prison in May, Fattah continues to be denied access to a lawyer. He is also being prevented from accessing necessary medication, as well as blood glucose and blood pressure monitors. On 24 August, his family reported that the prison authorities had restricted Fattah’s access to clean clothing and writing materials. In November, when Sunak met Sisi, Fattah began to refuse all food and water in an attempt to draw attention to his continuing imprisonment. A few weeks afterwards, he collapsed in the prison shower and needed life-saving medical treatment.
Freedom of expression is heavily restricted in Egypt. In recent years, the authorities have expanded online censorship and widened the use of counterterrorism legislation and charges against spreading ‘fake news’ to silence critics. Hundreds of independent news, politics and human rights websites are blocked in Egypt. A number of writers, poets, journalists and bloggers have been arbitrarily arrested and detained without trial for peacefully expressing their opinions. Many experience discriminatory treatment and extra punitive and arbitrary measures in prison, including being denied adequate access to medical care.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing concern at the continued detention of British-Egyptian writer Alaa Abd El-Fattah in Egypt and urging the UK government to honour its pledge and do all in its power to provide Fattah with a consular visit at the earliest possible opportunity and secure his release.
Appeals to be addressed to:
The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
The Rt Hon James Cleverly
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
Update: In early August, the award-winning writer, journalist and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi (LR, June 2012, March 2016, Sept 2020 & Feb 2023) was given an additional one-year prison sentence by a court in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This increases her total sentence to ten years and nine months, together with 154 lashes. Since January 2023, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence has brought several charges against Mohammadi in retaliation for her activism while incarcerated, which has included protesting against the rise in executions and violence against women in detention facilities. Between January and June 2023, the Iranian authorities initiated five new investigations into Mohammadi’s activism in prison. The recent sentence stemmed from Mohammadi’s writings on social media in January 2023 about violations against women in prisons and detention facilities in Iran. She was convicted of spreading ‘propaganda against the regime’ following an unfair trial.