Alaa on Hunger Strike Over Prisoners’ Conditions During Pandemic
Alaa Abd El Fattah has begun a hunger strike in his prison cell.
Since March 10th — in response to the coronavirus — Egyptian prisons have been sealed to the outside world: visits have been suspended, legal services cancelled and all but a handful of communications prohibited.
News of Alaa's decision to go on hunger strike came in an official report from Tora Prison on April 13th that was lodged with the District Prosecutor. While Alaa's family is unable to know the specific reasons for his decision, the conditions of Alaa's imprisonment are the worst of all of his previous detentions dating back to 2006.
Alaa has been held in a maximum security prison since September 27th 2019. He has not been convicted but is being held in remand detention, charged with ‘belonging to an illegal organisation’ and ‘spreading false news’ — the same charges lodged against thousands of political detainees, many of whom were simply swept up in street raids. There has been no evidence presented against him, and, as Alaa himself demonstrated in one of his last appearances before a judge, he has not been interrogated in any substantive way.
His pretrial detention, already lacking any legal grounding or rationale, is currently up for renewal by a judicial panel every 45 days. But prisoners are not being moved during the pandemic, and so the renewal sessions are being postponed, with no end in sight. Alaa — who, again, has not been convicted of any crime — has not been seen by his family, his lawyers, or a judge in over seven weeks during the pandemic. Prison authorities allowed one letter from him out to his mother, Laila Soueif, on April 9.
Egypt is now as outlier as one of the only regimes in the region not to release prisoners to better cope with the coronavirus: Iran (85,000 prisoners), Jordan (1,680 prisoners), Bahrain (1,468 prisoners), Turkey (45,000 prisoners), Morocco (5,000 prisoners), Afghanistan (10,000 prisoners).
While Egypt enters its third week of curfew, family members on both sides of the prison walls are being kept in a state of panic. Egypt holds at least 60,000 political prisoners and the health record within the carceral system is appalling: in March 2016, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights issued a report (Arabic) that found that the deterioration in prison conditions was unprecedented. “Inmates do not have access to the most basic health and hygiene,” the report said. “In some cases, conditions have approached those in medieval times, when maltreatment, torture, deprivation of food, and healthcare were typical characteristics of life in prison.” An estimated 650 people have died in prison since mid-2013, including prominent oppositional figures such as Nubian activist Gamal Sorour and spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Mahdi Akef. In 2019, the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, died in court after enduring six years of appalling conditions in what human rights groups said was caused by medical negligence.
With a bare minimum of information going in or out, prisoners have little sense of what is happening in the outside world, beyond that fact that a global pandemic is raging. With a freeze in visitations from family or lawyers, a suspension of even the pretence of legal process Alaa Abd El Fattah, once again, finds himself in a position with no good options.
His aunt, the writer Ahdaf Soueif, said:
“Historically, Alaa has used his profile, his body and his words to confront injustice — on his own account and on behalf of others. By going on hunger strike now he draws attention to the plight of tens of thousands in Egypt’s prisons.”
Alaa has been on hunger strike since April 13th. It is not clear if or how news about his condition will be communicated to his family. We already know that, since his arrival at Tora Maximum Security Prison, he has not been allowed books, papers, hot water, exercise, or bedding. Along with relatives of other prisoners, his family campaigned for prison authorities to allow warm clothes into the prison during winter’s coldest months.
His sister, Mona Seif, says:
“I am angry and exhausted on Alaa’s behalf. He has to fight these essential battles for basic prisoners’ rights — and he has to fight with his own body. For months we’ve been fighting for his right to books, letters, newspapers, exercise and time out of his cell. These are basic legal rights. Now the regime is using the coronavirus to cut them off further, to make their conditions even worse and our fight has been reduced to just trying to confirm Alaa is OK, while Alaa has to fight by starving himself — putting his body in even more danger in the midst of this crisis — to try and reclaim his and other prisoners’ most basic rights.”
The ‘September Wave’ of arrests came in the wake of the Mohammed Ali videos in which the contractor in exile revealed sweeping cases of government corruption. In response to a handful of street protests, at least 4,000 arrests were made. It is estimated that half were released soon after, while half remain in prison. None have been brought to trial yet and all charges centre around ‘belonging to an illegal organisation’ and ‘spreading fake news’.
Alaa was arrested from outside the police station in which he had been serving his ‘night probation’ - a five year sentence to sleep in his local police station, having already served five years in prison for organising a protest in 2013.
Alaa personally is being held in Tora Maximum Security Prison 2. Even before coronavirus he was being held for 24 hours a day in his cell, with no provision for fresh air or exercise, and no books or newspapers (even state newspapers) allowed in. He has been kept in these conditions since September 27th, 2019.