Egypt frees activists amid criticism of human rights record

Journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah was ordered released along with Abdel Nasser Ismail, leader of the Popular Alliance party, and Gamal El Gammal, a journalist and opposition figure.

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Egypt frees activists amid criticism of human rights record

Egyptian authorities have released two activists and three journalists after months in pre-trial detention, officials and lawyers said, amid concern by President Joe Biden’s administration over the arrest and harassment of government critics and rights advocates.

State security prosecutors ordered the release of the five pending ongoing investigations into charges against them, according to two judicial officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief the media.

Esraa Abdel Fattah, an activist and writer, walked free early on Sunday, her sister Shimaa wrote in a Facebook post.

She was a co-founder of the April 6 movement that played a crucial role in the 2011 pro-democracy uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Abdel Fattah was arrested in October 2019 in a city west of Cairo, during a crackdown that followed small but rare anti-government protests. Hundreds were arrested at the time, but many were later released.

She faces charges of spreading false news, being a member of a banned group and misuse of social media, but despite the lengthy detention has yet to stand trial, according her lawyers.

Journalists released

Authorities also released journalist Gamal el Gamal, said rights lawyer Nasser Amin. El Gamal is widely known for his columns critical of the government of President Abdel Fattah el Sisi. Amin posted a photo on Facebook showing him sitting with Gamal at home after his release.

Security forces arrested Gamal in February upon arrival at Cairo International Airport from Turkey, where he had lived since 2017.

Gamal was charged with spreading false news, joining a terrorist organisation and inciting public opinion against state institutions.

Authorities also released Abdel Nasser Ismail, deputy head of the Socialist People’s Alliance Party, after roughly two years in pre-trial detention, his brother Abdel Mawla Ismail said.

Ismail was arrested in the September 2019 crackdown. He was accused of spreading false news and of joining a terrorist organisation.

Among those released Sunday were journalists Mustafa el Aasar and Moataz Wadnan, according to rights lawyer Malek Adly.

Wadnan, the journalist, was arrested in February 2018 following his interview with Egypt’s former top auditor Hesham Genena who caused uproar after he said former military chief of staff Sami Annan possessed documents incriminating the country’s “leadership.”

El Aasar was also arrested in February 2018. Both journalists face charges of joining a terrorist group and disseminating false news in separate cases.

The releases came after an outcry by rights advocates when prosecutors last week referred Hossam Bahgat, a leading Egyptian investigative journalist and human rights advocate, to trial. Bahgat said he was accused of insulting Egypt’s election authority, spreading false news alleging electoral fraud, and using social media to commit crimes.

The accusations stem from a tweet Bahgat wrote last year blaming the election authority’s chairman for allegedly mishandling last year’s parliamentary vote, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, or EIPR, the organisation Bahgat founded 18 years ago.

Washington warning

US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Bahgat’s indictment and the detention and harassment of Egyptian civil society leaders, academics, and journalists under Sisi.

“We’ve communicated to the Egyptian government our strong belief that individuals such as Hossam Bahgat should not be targeted for expressing their views peacefully,” Price said last week.

“As a strategic partner we’ve raised these concerns with the Egyptian government, and we will continue to do so going forward.”

Asked if the issue would affect a major arms package being considered for Egypt, Price declined to discuss funding but said: “Human rights across the board is something we look at very closely in making those decisions.”

Trial of secular activists

Also last week, an Egyptian court began the trial of six secular activists and journalists, including former lawmaker Zyad el Elaimy, rights lawyer Khalid Ali said. The six, who were arrested in 2019, face an array of charges including disturbing the public peace through disseminating false news about domestic affairs. The next court session is July 29, Ali said.

El Elaimy and others were added by a court last year to a “terrorism list” for the next five years. The decision was upheld last week by the Court of Cassation – Egypt’s highest criminal court. Among the six was jailed Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, who helped establish Egypt’s branch of the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel, known as BDS.

Shaath, the son of a former Palestinian foreign minister, was detained in 2019 but has not been charged. His wife, a French citizen, was deported.

The Egyptian government has in recent years waged a wide-scale crackdown on dissent, jailing thousands of people, some of whom are secular activists involved in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

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