As unofficial reports of COVID-19 in detention spread — threatening a public health crisis that has the potential to affect the population as a whole — family members, lawyers, and the everyday public have a right to transparent, accurate, and regular information about what is happening in Egypt’s prisons.
In recent weeks, you may have heard the story of Dr. Laila Soueif and her daughters Mona and Sanaa Seif — the story of a family looking to communicate with their detained loved one amid the spread of COVID-19. For insisting on this right to communication, they have been harassed, threatened, assaulted, robbed, and arrested.
But they are not alone. The families and lawyers of tens of thousands of detainees across Egypt have little to no news about their loved ones and clients. In-person visits have been cancelled since the beginning of March. No virtual or video alternatives have been provided. Letters are few and far between. Egyptian authorities continue to remain silent in the fact of growing reports of COVID-19 in jails. They have failed to provide transparent, accurate, and regular updates on the measures being taken to curb and respond to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
On June 6, Hassan Mostafa’s mother traveled to Tora Prison yet again in an attempt to visit her son. She had not been able to see him or communicate with him directly since visits were suspended in early March. She was made to wait outside the prison in the hot summer sun, only to be turned away yet again without receiving any news. While returning home, she fainted in the metro — likely as a result of sun stroke. She was taken to a number of hospitals, reportedly refused treatment, and passed away that same day, without seeing her son.
Hassan, who is a renowned activist originally from Alexandria, was arrested on December 11, 2019, forcibly disappeared for two weeks, and ultimately ordered into pretrial detention for promoting a terrorist organization, spreading false news, and misusing social media. He remains in pretrial detention today.
Alaa Abdel Fattah & Sanaa Seif
On June 20, 2020, Dr. Soueif went to Tora Prison to deliver food and a letter to her detained son prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah — who had been re-arrested in September 2019 while fulfilling his probation from an earlier sentence.
Dr. Laila was made to wait in the heat for hours before being told that she would not be getting a letter despite earlier promises. Worried about her son, who she had not seen since March 12 and who, at the time, she had no news from since June 6, she refused to leave. Over a 48 hour period, she was harassed and threatened with arrest. In the early hours of June 22, and after her daughters Mona and Sanaa joined her outside the prison, female thugs attacked them, assaulting, beating, and robbing them of their belongings. Prison officials watched the entire time.
The next day, the family went to the Prosecutor-General’s office to submit a complaint about the incident. When Sanaa arrived at the office, she was abducted and thrown into a minivan. She then appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution; was accused of spreading false news, inciting terrorist crimes, and misusing social media; and was ordered into pretrial detention. The Public Prosecutor has claimed that she was arrested for using her social media account to post “false news” about the spread of COVID-19 in jail. On June 29, Dr. Laila finally received a letter from Alaa. In the time since, she has continued to face challenges in receiving letters on a regular basis, often having to make official complaints with authorities. She most recently received a letter from Alaa on July 27. Communication with Sanaa has been similarly difficult.
On June 4, the mother of Solafa Magdy submitted a complaint to the Prosecutor-General for the fifth time. At the time, she had received no news from her daughter since she last visited her on March 9. Each of her complaints have been entirely ignored by authorities.
While prison officials have accepted food to allegedly deliver to Solafa when her mother visited the prison, they have refused to facilitate even a letter exchange. Every week, Solafa’s mother goes to the prison to plead for news about Solafa. She is turned away without updates every single time.
Solafa is an Egyptian journalist who was arrested along with her husband on November 26, 2019. She is accused of joining a terrorist organization and spreading false news. She remains in pretrial detention today, made to live apart from her seven year old son.
Demand that Egyptian authorities do the following:
Grant family members and lawyers the ability to communicate with their loved ones and clients while visits are cancelled due to COVID-19.
Provide accurate and accessible information on what is happening inside Egypt’s prisons with regards to the spread of COVID-19 cases inside and the measures in place to respond to this spread.
End the use of provisions targeting “fake news”, “inciting terrorism”, and “misuse of social media” to prosecute individuals for sharing news about COVID-19 and prison conditions online.
Immediately and unconditionally release all of those arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, including Hassan Mostafa, Alaa Abdel Fattah, Sanaa Seif, and Solafa Magdy.