Egyptian prison authorities have medically intervened with jailed pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who this week escalated his hunger strike and stopped drinking water, his family said Thursday, demanding his release. The drama surrounding his fate coincides with Egypt’s hosting of the UN climate summit.
When the family sought details about Abdel-Fattah’s condition, officials at the prison refused to allow a lawyer for the family to visit him, despite approval from the prosecutor’s office for the visit. The lawyer, Khaled Ali, said Interior Ministry officials told him the approval was not valid because it was dated Wednesday, adding in a tweet that he was only notified of the approval Thursday morning.
The nature of the medical intervention was not known, and it was not clear if he was moved to a prison hospital. The family has expressed fears that prison officials would force-feed Abdel-Fattah, which they said would amount to torture. Abdel-Fattah said in an earlier letter that he was prepared to die in prison if he was not released, and Thursday was the fifth day since he said he stopped drinking water or consuming any calories.
Abdel-Fattah’s mother, Laila Soueif, has been waiting outside the Wadi el-Natroun prison complex in the desert north of Cairo every day this week, searching for evidence of her son’s life. She said Thursday that prison officials spoke to her outside the prison gates but refused to take a letter from her to her son.
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She asked them if her son underwent any medical procedure and they said he did. She asked “if it was by force, and they said no” and told her, “Alaa is fine,” she told the Associated Press.
“I need proof of this. I don’t trust them, she said. The family said in a statement that its lawyers demanded information about the content of the “medical intervention” and that Abdel-Fattah be immediately transferred to a civilian hospital.
At least 40 prisoners have died in Egyptian prisons this year, according to the al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. Among them was Alaa al-Salmi, who died in late October after going on hunger strike for several weeks.
At the climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnès Callamard expressed concern and called for independent medical care for Abdel-Fattah. “Why? Because the prison system in Egypt is abysmal in its treatment, medical treatment of prisoners,” she said.
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Abdel-Fattah, who has been in prison for most of the past decade, is serving a five-year sentence on charges of spreading fake news for sharing a Facebook post about a prisoner who died in custody in 2019.
Abdel-Fattah rose to fame during the 2011 democratic uprisings that swept across the Middle East and toppled Egypt’s longtime president Hosni Mubarak. His long imprisonment since 2011 became a symbol of Egypt’s slide back into even more autocratic rule under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
He had been on a partial hunger strike of 100 calories a day for the past six months. He stopped all caloric intake and began refusing water on Sunday, the first day of the world climate summit held in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Abdel-Fattah’s younger sister, Sanaa Seif, has been at the conference to raise public awareness of his case.
Egypt’s hosting of the event has drawn increased international attention to its heavy-handed suppression of speech and political activity. Since 2013, el-Sissi’s government has cracked down on dissidents and critics, jailing thousands, virtually banning protests and policing social media.
At the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz raised the activist’s case in their talks with el-Sissi. Abdel-Fattah gained British citizenship through his mother, who was born in London.
Speaking to the AP on Thursday at the climate conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry declined to answer questions about Abdel-Fattah and suggested some countries were using the issue to distract from climate commitments.
“Other issues not directly related to the climate can detract from attention and … perhaps motivate those who prefer to concentrate on other issues to avoid dealing with what they need to do, how they need to carry out their obligations and responsibilities,” he said .
“So, again, it’s up to the parties to put emphasis on the issues that are most important to them,” he said.