UN rights chief demands Egypt immediately release jailed activist

Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s sister, Sanaa Seif, has been campaigning for his immediate release and travelled to Cop27 to raise awareness of his plight. (Keystone/Press Association Images/Stefan Rousseau)

The United Nations human rights chief has called on Egypt to immediately release Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the jailed British-Egyptian pro-democracy activist who began a water strike on the opening day of Cop27.

Volker Türk said the political activist’s life was at imminent risk after he escalated his seven-month hunger strike and stopped drinking water on 6 November, as the eyes of the world turned to Sharm el-Sheikh.

“Abd el-Fattah is in great danger. His dry hunger strike puts his life at acute risk,” Türk said in a statement issued in Geneva on Tuesday.

“I urge the Government to immediately release Abd el-Fattah from prison and provide him with the necessary medical treatment.”

Türk described Abd el-Fattah as one of a number of people in Egypt who had been “arbitrarily deprived of their liberty”.

“I call on the Egyptian authorities to fulfil their human rights obligations and immediately release all those arbitrarily detained, including those in pre-trial detention, as well as those unfairly convicted,” he said. “No-one should be detained for exercising their basic human rights.”

Abd el-Fattah, a 40-year-old father of one, has been arrested multiple times over the past decade for his human rights activism. He first rose to prominence during Egypt’s 2011 uprising and became an outspoken critic of current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after he came to power in 2014.

The activist criticised the regime’s use of military trials for civilians who take part in protests or speak out against the government – a practice which is still allowed to this day. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in 2015 on charges of participating in an unauthorised gathering.

Just months after Abd el-Fattah’s release in March 2019 he was arrested again and held in pre-trial detention for two years before being convicted of “spreading false news” and handed another sentence of five years in prison in December 2021. Human rights groups denounced the charge and branded the trial a sham.

Over 200 days of hunger

Abd el-Fattah began a partial hunger strike in April, with his family saying he was consuming a maximum of 100 calories a day. Last week, with his health already in a fragile situation, he told relatives he would drink only water until Sunday, when he would stop drinking water when Cop27 began.

His detention has become a prominent issue at the climate summit, which his sister Sanaa Seif is attending to campaign for his release. Activists at Cop27 have been posting under the hashtag #FreeAlaa and several speakers have quoted the title of his book – “you have not yet been defeated” – at the end of their addresses.

Seif told a news conference at Cop27 on Monday that she and her relatives were extremely concerned for Abd el-Fattah’s well being after his mother did not receive her usual weekly letter from him during a visit to the prison.

“All we know is that Alaa stopped drinking water 50 hours ago. We don't know where he is. We don't know if he is alive,” Seif said.

“My mother waited outside the prison gates for 10 hours yesterday for her weekly letter. They didn't give her one. She is back at those gates right now,” she said, adding that she asked the British authorities to provide some proof that Alaa is alive and conscious but did not receive a response.

Seif said she had been extremely worried by recent interviews given by Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, who is chairing the climate conference, and President Sisi.

Asked about Abd el-Fattah’s condition on Monday, Shoukry told CNBC prison authorities would provide him with healthcare. “This is a matter of personal choice, and again it is dealt with within the penal system, within the rules and regulations that govern it,” he said.

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron said President Sisi had assured him Egypt was “committed to ensuring that [the] health of Alaa Abd el-Fattah is preserved”.

Seif said she was concerned her brother may be being force-fed against his will. “If that is the case, then he has been plunged into a worse nightmare than he was already in,” she said.

“We know that they are happy for him to die,” she added. “The only thing they care about is that it doesn't happen while the world is watching.”

Ravina Shamdasani, the UN high commissioner’s spokesperson, told a press conference in Geneva that Türk had personally spoken with Egyptian authorities to appeal for Abd el-Fattah’s release, most recently on Friday.

Asked whether the UN was concerned he may have already died, given the lack of communication with his relatives in recent days, Shamdasani told reporters: “We are very concerned for his health and there is a lack of transparency, as well around his current condition”.