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While world leaders met in Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27, British-Egyptian pro-democracy activist and writer Alaa Abd el-Fattah began a full hunger strike. He is imprisoned for “spreading false news” and has been denied access to diplomatic and legal counsel.
Sadly, Alaa’s case is far from unique. In fact, Human Rights First estimates that there are up to 65,000 political prisoners in detention in Egypt, though the real figure is unknown. Perplexingly, the Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has alleged that Egypt does not hold any political prisoners at all.
News that el-Sisi ordered the release of hundreds of prisoners in 2022 ahead of COP27 has been met with caution. “It might be tempting to think that positive change is on the horizon in Egypt following the releases of political prisoners.” says Index on Censorship’s Emma Sandvik Ling. “However, former political prisoners report continued intimidations and warnings of rearrest should they speak out against el-Sisi’s government. There is an important distinction to be made here between optics and genuine efforts to protect human rights.”
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who became Egyptian president after a coup in 2013, has shown increasingly authoritarian tendencies over the last decade. Among other things, el-Sisi has argued that freedom of expression “stops” when it offends Islam and urged opposition movements to “look and listen” before they speak.
Dissidents fighting for civic rights, democracy and transparency face intimidation, threats and arbitrary detentions. Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s case represents the heartbreaking reality for thousands of political prisoners in el-Sisi’s Egypt. El-Sisi is a tyrant in the true meaning of the word and his rule has a detrimental impact on freedom of expression.
Egyptian pro-democracy activist and blogger Abdelrahman ‘Moka’ Tarek has been released from prison. Moka works with the Al-Nedal Centre for Rights and Freedoms to defend freedom of expression and prisoner’s rights in Egypt. He won Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Award for Campaigning in 2021. In particular, the board of judges noted his commitment to protecting freedom of expression and his courage despite overwhelming adversity.
Moka has experienced persistent state harassment, arbitrary detentions, and abuse over the last decade. He was first detained in 2013 when he was involved in protests against military trials for civilians which were organised in front of the Egyptian Senate. He was released on probation in October 2018, but was forcibly disappeared a year later in September 2019. He was eventually placed in pre-trial detention and accused of “joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media”.
On two separate occasions, courts ordered the release of Moka. However, the release orders were blocked by the addition of new cases. Moka was prevented from communicating with his family and accessing legal counsel. He was subjected to poor detention conditions, torture, and abuse, including the use of electric shocks and prolonged solitary confinement. In 2021, Moka was transferred to the prison hospital after experiencing health complications due to a 53-day long hunger strike in protest of the poor conditions.
Reacting to his release, Ruth Smeeth, CEO of Index on Censorship said: “I am delighted that Moka has finally been released. We stand united with Moka and his detention was a travesty of justice. Today our thoughts are with him and his family who must be completely relieved.”
Tarek’s release comes after the reactivation of the Presidential Pardons Committee by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the subsequent appeal from eight Egyptian human rights groups for authorities to provide more transparency and clarity into review processes.
While this may indicate a shift towards more openness and transparency, Egyptian activists still face severe censorship and intimidation. Information received by Amnesty International suggests that those released will be monitored by Egypt’s National Security Agency, and that they may be threatened with re-arrest if they engage in activism.
A total of 986 inmates received a presidential pardon in May 2022 during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations, according to a statement released by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior. Egypt is estimated to have a prison population of more than 119,000, 31% of which are held on remand.
Abdelrahman Tarek (widely known as Moka) is a human rights defender working with Al-Nedal Centre for Rights and Freedoms. His work includes defending free expression in Egypt and prisoners’ rights, especially in cases of forced disappearances. On 12 September 2021, Moka was awarded Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Award in recognition of his campaigning work. The award celebrates individuals or groups who have had a significant impact fighting censorship anywhere in the world.
Moka was first arrested on 26 November 2013 in relation to the “Shura Council” case, when a number of activists organized a protest against military trials for civilians in front of the Egyptian Senate (Shura Council) and were subsequently arrested.
On 11 June 2014, he was sentenced to three years in prison and three years of police probation. He was held in Tora El Mazraa Prison; during his detention, he was frequently subjected to torture, as a result of which he still suffers psychologically. After his release in October 2018, he began to serve his three-year probationary period, during which he had to spend 12 hours a day at the Qasr Al Nil Police Station in Cairo. On 10 September 2019, Moka was forcibly disappeared during his daily probation session at Qasr Al Nil Police Station. A day later, he re-appeared at the office of the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), where he was interrogated in Case No. 1331 of 2019. He was accused of “joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media” by the prosecutor during the interrogation, and was ordered into pre-trial detention.
On 10 March 2020, a court ordered his release on probationary measures, which included reporting to a police station every few days. He was, however, never released. Instead, he was forcibly disappeared for 50 days. On 30 April 2020, the SSSP ordered Moka into pre-trial detention on new charges of “joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media” – the same accusations he faced in the previous case.
On 22 September 2020, a court ordered the release of Moka. However, once again, the release order was never implemented. On 3 December 2020, after being held arbitrarily for over 70 days, the SSSP interrogated Moka for “establishment and funding of a terrorist organisation.” On 3 December 2020, he was ordered into pretrial detention in that case. He started a hunger strike to protest the Prosecutor’s decision.
In mid-January 2021, Moka was transferred to Tora Prison, which is known for its inhumane detention conditions, such as lack of clean water, poor ventilation, and overcrowding. On 17 January 2021, he was hospitalised at Tora Prison Hospital for the first time, due to his deteriorating health. He had to be hospitalised several times afterward. On 3 February 2021, he ended his hunger strike.
Since Moka was detained in September 2019, two consecutive orders for his release have been preempted by the addition of new cases, allowing authorities to evade the two-year legal limit on pre-trial detention in Egypt.
In the first week of August 2021, Moka attempted suicide after he was denied a family visit. As punishment, Moka was placed in a disciplinary cell for 24 hours.
Accepting the award on behalf of Moka, one of his family members said: “I am sure that when Moka hears that he won this award he will be extremely happy and he will spend a happy night but when he wakes up the next day, he will be feeling disappointed and frustrated that he will be spending another day in prison.”
Moka is among the thousands of people arbitrarily detained in Egypt, including human rights defenders, journalists, politicians, lawyers, and social media influencers. They remain in prolonged detention solely for exercising and defending fundamental human rights.
“Today I tried to be Moka’s voice, and I want each of you to be his voice, until he comes out of prison alive,” his family member said. “Freedom for Moka and all detainees.”
We, the undersigned organisations, call on the Egyptian government to immediately and unconditionally release Abdulrahaman Tarek.
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Index on Censorship
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
MENA Rights Group
The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Two months ago, British documentary filmmaker Jess Kelly was making plans for a happy future. She had just got married and she and her Egyptian husband Karim Ennarah were planning on a life together in London.
Today, the future could hardly be more uncertain. Ennarah is in an Egyptian jail facing charges of belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false news, with the threat of a long jail sentence.
Ennarah’s ‘crime’ was to meet in early November with a group of European diplomats, including from the UK and the Netherlands, to discuss human rights issues in the country. Ennarah works as criminal justice unit director for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. His work focuses on human rights abuses within Egypt’s policing and the criminal justice system.
Speaking to Index, Kelly said, “I was in London on the day of the meeting and we were on the phone. He mentioned he had to get up early and had an important meeting with a couple of diplomats.
“It was typical of him to underplay the importance of these things and also to underplay his role. He joked that he was going to have to wear a suit. I didn’t know then it was going to be such a historic turning point,” said Kelly.
A few days later, Ennarah travelled to the Red Sea town of Dahab for a short break with friends. Kelly planned to join him there.
On the day of his arrival, Ennarah received a phone call to say that his EIPR colleague Mohammad Bashseer had been arrested. He thought about turning around and heading straight back to help but he decided to stay for one night.
Kelly says, “That night he called me, he told me the police had come to his mum’s house and told me to prepare for the worst. He couldn’t couch it in comforting terms.”
Kelly first met Ennarah in 2009.
“I was doing my degree in Arabic and was spending the second year in Cairo. We were introduced by mutual friends. At the time, he was working for the UN in South Sudan and he started working for EIPR in 2011, just after the revolution. We got together in 2015.”
Ennarah was well suited to his new role.
“He found himself very suited to the job of advocacy,” said Kelly. “His sense of right and wrong was strong and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of human rights. He is also a very good speaker and can talk to anyone.”
EIPR is one of the few remaining human rights organisations in Egypt.
“Over the years, Karim has supported many journalists who come to him for comment,” said Kelly. “EIPR are the ones in the know, they are the only people taking testimonies and conducting proper research into abuses of human rights, whether of minorities or in the criminal justice system.”
Kelly says that the human rights situation in Egypt has deteriorated over the years and the authorities have been locking up political prisoners at an increasing rate.
“I have made films in most countries in the Middle East – Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. Egypt is the only place I have never been granted a visa. People see Egypt as a holiday destination where you can drink and people have a good time. It is well known to us in the media that Egypt is the only place that you don’t try and expose things because you will be locked up.”
On 18 November, the couple’s concerns materialised. Ennarah was sitting in a restaurant in the Red Sea town when he was arrested by the authorities.
During a four-hour investigation, security forces confiscated his laptop, phone and personal belongings and ordered his pre-trial detention for 15 days on charges of “joining a terrorist group”, “using a social media account to spread false news” and “spreading false news”. The prosecutor said the charges were based on security investigations showing that Ennarah “agreed with a group inside prisons to spread false rumours that could undermine public peace and public safety.”
Ennarah is not alone – Patrick George Zaki, a human rights activist who had previously worked with EIPR, and the organisation’s executive director Gasser Abed El Razek have also been arrested.
“When Patrick Zaki was detained in February, it was a huge shock for everyone,” said Kelly. “We discovered that they had interrogated him and had asked about Karim by name.”
Despite this worrying development, Ennarah did not flinch.
“Karim is someone who is not going to run away from anything until he is forced to,” said Kelly. “We spoke about how it wasn’t safe for him but he just was never going to give up this role. There are not many people who can take it one, he would say, someone has to keep fighting.”
Kelly has not been able to speak with Ennarah or get him a message since his arrest a week ago but she believes emphatically that he will be strong.
“Karim is very resilient and very pragmatic,“ said Kelly. “He will be confident that he has the best people working on his case get him out. He is very strong-willed but I think it is going to be very hard for him to think about his mum and me. He wouldn’t have wanted me to put my life on hold but I can’t think of anything else.”
Kelly speaks to Ennarah’s mother regularly. “When we talk, she seems pretty strong. She is proud of him. She says to me, ‘He is the person who loves Egypt the most. How could they level these accusations against him?’”
Kelly believes that applying pressure now – before there is a trial or sentencing – offers the best chance of getting him free. Some 90,000 people have already signed a petition started by Kelly to UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab calling for the UK government to demand his release.
Next Monday is Ennarah’s 38th birthday and it will be a difficult day for Kelly and Ennarah’s family.
“Just two months ago when we got married we were dreaming of our future together. Now I don’t even know when I’ll get to see him again,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to have him by my side. Now our life together has been crushed.”
She says the charges against Ennarah are totally unfounded.
“His only crime is to dare to believe that Egyptians deserve the most basic of human rights.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”4060″][/vc_column][/vc_row]