Egyptian activist ‘withered’ from hunger strike

CAIRO (AP) – The family of jailed Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah said he was admitted to prison and saw him Thursday and that his condition had “deteriorated significantly” after a dramatic hunger strike.

His sister Mona Seif posted the news after the activist’s mother, aunt and other sister visited Wadi el-Natroun prison, north of Cairo. It was the first time they had seen him in almost a month.

“The news of the visit is heartbreaking,” Mona tweeted, adding that her brother had “been very unwell for the past 2 weeks.” She did not elaborate further on his health but said the family would share more information later in the day.

Abdel-Fattah is one of Egypt’s most prominent pro-democracy campaigners. He stepped up a hunger strike and stopped all calories and water at the start of the United Nations climate conference earlier in November in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, to draw attention to drawing on his own situation and on the situation of other political prisoners.

Concerns about his health increased as the family was forbidden to see him. Last Thursday, prison authorities began an unspecified medical intervention on Abdel-Fattah – fueling speculation that he was being force-fed.

Then earlier this week, Abdel-Fattah informed his family in handwritten notes that he had started drinking water again and then ended his hunger strike as well.

Abdel-Fattah’s mother, Laila Soueif, received two short letters in her son’s handwriting, on Monday and Tuesday, through prison authorities. The first letter, confirming that Abdel-Fattah had started drinking water again, was dated Saturday, and the second letter, confirming that his hunger strike had ended, was dated Monday.

”My strike is broken. I will explain everything on Thursday,” read the second letter. The circumstances under which he wrote the letter were not clear. The activist previously said he was willing to die in his strike if he was not released.

The family has not seen Abdel-Fattah since the last pre-approved visit on October 24 and has not been informed of his condition. In the note, Abdel-Fattah asks his mother to bring him a cake to celebrate his birthday. The meetings, which take place behind a glass barrier, usually last around 20 minutes.

Abdel-Fattah, who will turn 41 on Friday, spent most of the last decade in prison for his criticism of Egypt’s rulers. Last year, he was sentenced to five years for sharing a Facebook post about a prisoner who died in custody in 2019.

Her hunger strike drew attention to Egypt’s heavy-handed suppression of political speech and action, during the Arab nation’s hosting of the UN climate summit, known as COP27. Since 2013, the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has cracked down on dissidents and critics, jailing thousands, virtually banning protests and monitoring social media.

During the two-week climate conference, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz raised the case of the activist in their private talks with el-Sissi. Abdel-Fattah gained British citizenship earlier this year through his mother, who was born in London. The family has often criticized the British government for not doing enough to free him.

But when the hunger strike ended, much to the surprise of his family, questions also arose as to whether Abdel-Fattah’s authorities had said something.

“I have no idea why he took this step, if he was promised something, what he was told, what is being hidden from him, I have no idea,” Soueif previously said.

The Egyptian foreign minister has tried to draw attention to Abdel-Fattah. In an interview with the Associated Press on Saturday on the sidelines of COP27, Sameh Shoukry said the priority of the summit should be focused on ”the existential challenge of climate change” rather than the well-being of the activist.

Abdel-Fattah rose to fame during the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings that swept through the Middle East, which toppled Egypt’s long-time autocratic President Hosni Mubarak. Jailed several times, he has spent a total of nine years behind bars, symbolizing Egypt’s slide back to more autocratic rule under el-Sissi.

On Tuesday, Tarik el-Awady, a member of Egypt’s presidential pardon committee, announced the release of the 30 pre-trial detainees before posting pictures of some of the freed prisoners on his Facebook account. El-Awady did not reveal the identity of any of the detainees.

In recent months, the Egyptian government has tried to improve its international image through mass prisoner releases through presidential pardons and by establishing a new “strategy” to upgrade the country’s human rights conditions.

Some human rights groups questioned these moves and accused Egypt of using the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh to further whitewash its record on the rights of the poor. Egypt is among the world’s worst jailers of journalists, along with Turkey and China, according to 2021 data produced by the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Human Rights Watch estimated in 2019 that there are up to 60,000 political prisoners imprisoned in Egyptian prisons, many of them without trial.

Abdel-Fattah’s other sister, Sanaa Seif, took part in a protest march in Sharm el Sheikh where hundreds of activists demand action on climate change, human rights and gender. The protesters also called for the release of Abdel-Fattah and all political prisoners held in Egypt. Sanaa, who was previously imprisoned in Egypt and now lives in London, flew to the conference to raise awareness about her brother’s situation.

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