I escaped Sisi's jails, but thousands of others haven't been as lucky

I escaped Sisi's jails, but thousands of others haven't been as lucky
Comment: Despite death threats forcing me out of Egypt, I'm lucky compared to the tens of thousands jailed, tortured and killed for speaking their minds, writes Bahey el-Din Hassan
5 min read
19 Oct, 2020
Police guard Cairo's notorious Tora prison, where political prisoners have died [Getty]

"I consider myself lucky" I told the 33rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2016, when an Egyptian court ordered the freezing of my assets. Two years earlier I had been forced to leave Egypt after receiving a death threat. I still don't know when I can go back home.

But I consider myself lucky compared to tens of thousands of Egyptians who peacefully expressed their opinions after the military coup of 2013, and were killed, jailed, or forcibly disappeared in return. Many died in jail under torture or due to intentional medical negligence, as was the case with former president Mohamed Morsi, the first elected president since the first military coup, 1952.

When I received a death threat for my human rights work three weeks after President Sisi took office in 2014, I wasn't surprised. This wasn't my first death threat since I cofounded the first Egyptian human rights NGO 35 years ago. My first death threat came 30 years ago from a lawyer affiliated with an armed Islamist group that later assassinated Farag Fouda, a renowned secular intellectual.

For over three decades I was subjected to two different types of threats and smear campaigns. The first came from Islamists accusing me of blasphemy, and the second came from different Egyptian governments accusing me of being unpatriotic.

What was surprising about the 2014 death threat was the reactions of the Western diplomats in Cairo and senior UN officials I consulted in New York. They told me that the threat was serious and imminent, and that I should leave Egypt immediately. Some of those I consulted while outside Egypt told me not to even return to say goodbye to my family and friends.

After I left Egypt, talk show hosts incited audiences to kill me

After I left Egypt, talk show hosts incited audiences to kill me. One of those talk show hosts, who is also a member of the parliament and is closely affiliated with Sisi, stated that Egyptian security agencies have previously assassinated citizens abroad. 

Another talk show host called on assassinating me the same way Sergei Skripal was attacked in the UK. He accused me of espionage because I speak out on human rights violations with senior officials from the UN, including its current and former secretary generals, and officials from UN member states, including President Barack Obama, and advisers to President Trump and to the leaders of Germany, France, Brazil, and others.

When I filed a complaint with the Egyptian Public Prosecutor concerning the previous case, it was shelved, and the talk show host was rewarded by president Sisi with a government post tasked with monitoring the "professionalism" of international media covering Egypt.

The prosecutor who rejected my complaint against incitement to murder opened two parallel investigations into my public statements on the human rights situation. Within 11 months I was sentenced to 18 years in prison for "insulting the judiciary" and spreading "fake news".

When I found out about my sentence, I remembered Dr Mostafa al-Nagar, one of the icons of the liberal youth movement of the January 2011 revolution. In 2011, al-Nagar established a political party and was elected to parliament after a landslide victory against his Muslim Brotherhood-backed opponent. Al-Nagar criticised the judiciary in one of his statements in parliament, and despite having legal immunity as an MP, he was sentenced in 2017 to three years in jail for the same reason I was. But al-Nagar, like thousands of Egyptians over the past few years, was forcibly disappeared. Until this day, his fate remains unknown.

Some of the disappeared in Egypt are kept by security forces and later extrajudicially executed and passed off as terrorists, despite evidence that they have been in police custody for a long time. This heinous crime echoes the "False Positives" phenomenon in some Latin American countries in the 1970s and 1980s.

David Schenker, the State Department's Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs is probably familiar with how difficult it is to convince Sisi to release US citizens imprisoned in Egypt. Perhaps he would have had a better chance of securing the release of Mustafa Kassem, a US citizen who died in an Egyptian prison last January, had Kassem been a common criminal, rather than a political prisoner.

Political analysts describe Egypt as having a rubber-stamp parliament. The Egyptian judiciary is no different.

Mr Schenker personally followed up the case, and wrote an article three years ago on how prisoners pardoned by Sisi are convicted killers rather than innocents or peaceful protesters. This policy was recently legalised through a legislation that bans the pardoning and conditional release of those accused of striking and protesting, while allowing the release of violent criminals and convicted killers, including in high profile cases.

The prosecution continues to frame peaceful citizens for being members of terrorist organisations, including renowned Christian citizens, peaceful Islamists, secular figures, and even medical staff who criticised the handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

Read also: A job or a calling? Egypt's human rights movement from the Mubarak era to Sisi

Political analysts describe Egypt as having a rubber-stamp parliament. The Egyptian judiciary is no different. It's no wonder the United Nations highlighted in one of its statements that the Egyptian Judiciary had made a "mockery of justice".

When the judiciary decides that a human rights defender has "jeopardised the state's national security, the economic statute and public order" for a mere tweet, then President Trump needs to re-evaluate his favourite dictator and his ability to provide stability for a country like Egypt.

Bahey el-Din Hassan is the Director and founder of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), currently living in exile in France. He is the author of several publications on democracy and human rights in the Arab World.

Follow him on Twitter: @BaheyHassan

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.