Egypt frees detainee amid calls for releases due to virus

March 20, 2020 GMT

CAIRO (AP) — Authorities released a prominent political activist Friday amid calls for Egypt to let thousands of others go free to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading among the prison population.

According to human rights groups, there are tens of thousands jailed in Egypt for their political views.

The wife of Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a doctor who was at the forefront of Egypt’s 2011 pro-democracy protest movement, wrote on her Facebook page that her husband was out after spending nearly two years in detention over charges of insulting Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. Fatma Hisham Murad posted a picture of them hugging upon his release.

It was not immediately clear if Harb’s release was a response to a campaign calling for political prisoners’ release amid the pandemic.

On Thursday, state prosecutors ordered the release of Harb along with 14 other prominent critics of Egypt’s government, according to Nasser Amin, a member of the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights. The remaining detainees are expected to be released soon after completing all necessary paperwork, Amin told The Associated Press.

“The government has heeded the demands of the human rights movement but it is still not enough,” said Amin. a human rights lawyer. “This step should be followed immediately and quickly by the release of all other people held in pre-trial detention.”

According to rights groups, thousands are held in Egypt’s jails awaiting trials. Over 3,000 people were arrested in September alone in the most recent crackdown on dissent that followed a rare few protests demanding el-Sissi to step down.

Also on Friday, Egypt’s health ministry announced that the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases has reached 285 including eight deaths. The number of recovered patients that were discharged from the quarantine has reached 39, added the statement posted on an official government Facebook page.

The mother of a prominent Egyptian activist was released from detention after her arrest the previous day for staging a protest demanding that prisoners be released amid the coronavirus pandemic, her daughter said.

Laila Soueif, the mother of imprisoned 38-year-old activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, was released late Thursday after being arrested a day earlier along with her daughter, sister and another female activist. The women had rallied outside the headquarters of Egypt’s Cabinet in downtown Cairo raising banners reading: “Release prisoners.”

The four women were charged with violating the country’s strict ban on protests with their small gathering and of spreading false news about Egypt’s over-crowded correctional facilities.

The prosecutor ordered the release of the four detainees late Wednesday on bail. However, Soueif remained in custody and was taken to the State Security Prosecutors’ office for further questioning before she, too, was released, her youngest daughter, Sanaa Seif, wrote on her Facebook page. Seif did not participate in the protest.

A government press officer did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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

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

Human rights advocates around the globe are echoing demands to reduce incarceration, arguing that prisons can be breeding grounds for the spread of the virus, which leads to the disease COVID-19. Several Middle Eastern countries that were hit by the novel virus have already started releasing prisoners, including Iran and Bahrain.