23 May The Slow Death of Alaa Abdelfattah in El-Sisi’s Prisons
Said Benarbia is the director of Middle East and North Africa Programme at the International Commission of Jurists
Until 29 September 2019, Alaa Abdelfattah, a prominent Egyptian human rights defender, reported to the Dokki police station in Cairo every day at 6 pm. He would spend 12 hours in a windowless office. He would sleep on a chair or the floor. He would wake up and leave at 6 am, only to return to the same police station at 6 pm. He did so every single day, for almost 180 days.
This regime of deprivation of liberty is known as ‘police control’. According to the government, it is meant to deter criminal behaviour after release. In El-Sisi’s Egypt, Alaa is a ‘criminal’ because he was convicted in 2013 of ‘demonstrating without authorization’ and ‘interrupting the work of national institutions’. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a further five years of police control.
One would have assumed El-Sisi’s government to be satisfied with the sentence. Such an assumption would have been very misplaced, for El-Sisi’s rule is a ruthless, cynical enterprise aimed at reducing any and all dissenting voices to silence.
On 29 September 2019, Alaa was arrested when he was about to leave the Dokki police station. The Supreme State Security Prosecution ordered his detention for 15 days, charging him with ‘spreading false information aiming at disturbing the public order’, ‘misusing social media’ and ‘joining a terrorist organization’.
Alaa’s pre-trial detention has been arbitrarily renewed since then, for more than two years. During this time, he was held in inhumane conditions at the Tora Maximum Security 2 Prison and was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. On 20 December 2021, he was convicted by the Emergency State Security Court of spreading false news, and sentenced to five years in prison .
The Emergency Court is a court of exceptional jurisdiction, before which fair trial rights are systematically violated. Alaa’s conviction cannot be appealed because the court’s decisions are final.
The law and the practice provide that the time spent in pre-trial detention be deducted from any custodial sentence. Not in the case of Alaa, because he continues also to face, separately, two charges of misusing social media, which carries a sentence of up to 5 years in prison, and joining a terrorist group, which can carry a life sentence. His pre-trial detention continues to be renewed for the two pending charges, while he simultaneously serves the five-year sentence.
Under President Mubarak’s rule, the trumped-up charges against activists were usually adjudicated in one trial. President El-Sisi is optimizing repression, and his courts are now adjudicating each charge separately.
With precision and determination, President El-Sisi has weaponized the judiciary to carry out a relentless, sustained crackdown on his adversaries, both real and imagined. With cruelty and vengeance, the politicised judicial proceedings have been designed and implemented to break detainees inside prisons, and to spread fear outside them.
In cases like Alaa’s, Egypt’s prosecutors and judges do not much care to establish how the information published by the defendant has “disturbed the public order”. They do not seem to bother to even specify the names of the ‘terrorist’ organisations Alaa and other activists have purportedly joined, or to provide any evidence that they have engaged in any unlawful activities. For the criminal justice system in Egypt is not based on the principles of the presumption of innocence, legal certainty, or fairness. It is based on politicised prosecutions, trumped-up charges, and industrial-scale convictions. Abdicating their responsibility to uphold the rule of law and human rights, Egyptian judges and prosecutors have become docile tools of repression.
Alaa believes that he will spend his life in jail. In December, he told his lawyer that he didn’t spend a single full year out of jail since 2011, and that if the government means for him to die in prison, he will just ‘make it easy for everyone’ and take his own life. Since 2 April 2022, he has been on hunger strike.
This is El-Sisi’s Egypt, where courts and prisons are used to break detainees physically and psychologically. This is El-Sisi’s rule, where repression is everywhere and justice nowhere.
Emboldened by the deafening silence of other States over Egypt’s disastrous record of human rights violations, encouraged by the red carpets that continue to roll in his honor around the world, comforted in his war on ‘terror’ and shielded from international accountability, the ‘favorite dictator’ is determined to continue his rule on his own terms, as he pleases. Keep quiet and you’re safe. Speak up at your own peril. Alaa spoke up and ended up in jail. Governments and the rest of the international community should speak up for him to not die there.