Egypt holds activists who urged prisoner releases amid virus

Associated Press

Cairo – Egyptian authorities on Thursday continued to detain the mother of a prominent jailed activist, after she and three others were arrested earlier this week for staging a protest to demand the release of prisoners amid the new coronavirus outbreak.

Laila Soueif’s detention came as the Egyptian government tries to maintain its firm grip on dissent amid a burgeoning world health crisis. According to human rights groups, there are tens of thousands imprisoned in Egypt for their political views.

FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2014 file photo, Egypt's most prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, left, walks with his mother Laila Soueif, a university professor who is an also an activist, outside a court, in Cairo, Egypt.

On Wednesday, prosecutors charged Soueif and three other activists of spreading false news and violating the country’s protest ban. They had stood outside the Cabinet building asking the government to free inmates over concerns that the coronavirus could rapidly spread through Egypt’s prison system.

Three of the women who protested Wednesday are related to prominent jailed Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah.

Authorities kept Soueif in custody, but on Thursday released both her sister, her daughter Mona Seif as well as the fourth activist, according to a Facebook post from another daughter, Sanaa Seif, who did not attend the protest.

Mona Seif had live-streamed a video of herself and the other three as they held up signs on a sidewalk in downtown Cairo.

“In normal circumstances, Egyptian prisons are epicenters of diseases. Can you imagine how bad things must be now in the midst of an epidemic?” she said in the video. Minutes later, the live stream was cut when police seemed to stop the filming.

A prosecutor accused them of violating the country’s strict protest ban with their gathering. Sanaa Seif said her mother was taken to a prosecutors’ office for further questioning Thursday.

Abdel Fattah’s family have all been vocal rights activists in Egypt. A 38-year-old software engineer, Abdel Fattah grew into a figurehead of the pro-democracy protest movement on social media during the 2011 uprising that removed longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

He served a five-year prison sentence for violating Egypt’s protest ban, and in September, not long after his release, he was arrested again amid a widespread crackdown that followed small protests demanding current President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi step down – although he did not participate in the protests.

Egyptian authorities could not be immediately reached for comment. El-Sissi has maintained in the past that the country has no political prisoners, but tens of thousands have been arrested and handed prison sentences for breaking the protest ban or on vague charges of spreading false news.

In recent months, his government has led several press tours of prisons that show them in gleaming condition with modern health facilities. But inmates and rights workers tell a different story, of packed cells with little sunlight.

Egypt has so far registered over 250 confirmed cases and six deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, none of them inside the prison system. The government has taken several precautionary measures to prevent its spread including the suspension of schools, halting of air travel, a partial shut-down of recreational places and the reduction of the workforce in government offices as well as private businesses. It has also stopped family visits to prisons.

Rights groups say that’s not enough for the thousands who shouldn’t be behind bars in the first place, citing examples of releases elsewhere. Iran has let 85,000 prisoners go on temporary leave. Also in Bahrain, hundreds of prisoners were pardoned last week to reduce congestion in prisons.

“Prisoners cannot take their own precautionary measures. They cannot isolate or sanitize themselves. So it is the government’s responsibility to protect them,” said Mohamed Lofty, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.