After years of languishing in Egyptian prisons, a sudden release

CAIRO — It was hot, hot in Egypt as friends and relatives gathered outside the concrete walls of Cairo’s infamous Tora prison one recent...


CAIRO — It was hot, hot in Egypt as friends and relatives gathered outside the concrete walls of Cairo’s infamous Tora prison one recent morning to welcome the newly released. The flowers that a family had brought were beginning to wilt. The babies were crying. The crowd was huddled in the shade, greetings and laughter alternating with silence, their excitement cut by the tension.

By the clock, the prison authorities were running late. But Khaled Dawoud, a former detainee, was used to their ways. By Egyptian standards, he joked, a three-hour delay to see his former cellmate and five other political prisoners released was nothing.

“My heart goes like,” Mr Dawoud said, clapping his hand to his chest. A journalist and opposition politician, he had spent more than 18 months in Tora as a political prisoner before being released last year. “I went through what they went through,” he added. “Swear to God, today is the peak of the peak.”

Over the past decade, as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tightened his grip on power by suppressing the slightest signs of dissent, Egypt has arrested tens of thousands of political prisoners. They are held without charge or trial for weeks, months or even years — at least 4,500 of them in the six months between September 2020 and February 2021, The New York Times found, and often under conditions ranging from abusive to life-threatening.

Lately there has been a sudden change.

The authorities have released at least 400 detainees since April, when Mr el-Sisi unveiled a new clemency committee and called for a “national dialogue” with opposition factions to discuss greater political openness.

Political analysts see this as part of an effort to clean up Egypt’s human rights record before it hosts a UN climate conference in November and, possibly, to signal concessions to a population hard hit by rising prices.

“Things are finally moving,” said Mohamed Lotfy, executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, who was also waiting outside Tora prison with his arms crossed, Alaa Essam Ramadan, Mr. Dawood.

“There are a lot of things we don’t know,” Mr. Lotfy said. “It makes no sense to me. But it’s good for us, then.

Members of the pardons committee recently said that more than 1,000 people – politicians, political activists and journalists, among others – are being considered for release. Yet at the same time, the lawyers say, authorities are making new arrests every day, while at least 33 of those freed since April have been remanded in custody on new charges.

Most of those released from Tora prison on that hot day in June had waited three years for this moment, never having been formally charged, never having been tried. After all that, receiving such a sudden forgiveness felt like supersonic.

No one outside of Sissi’s secret government knows why, exactly, or why now. But for the dozens of friends and family waiting outside Tora, the releases were long overdue.

“This is the first time since 2018 that no one I really, really care about is in jail,” said Lobna Monieb, a podcast producer whose father, cousin and friend had all been detained these past few months. last years. “It’s a good time.”

His cousin was released in 2019, his father last year. Now she was awaiting the release of her friend, Kholoud Said, a translator and researcher at the famous Great Library of Alexandria. Mrs Said was first arrest in April 2020 after writing posts criticizing the government on Facebook. Like thousands of other political detainees, she was accused of joining a terrorist group, spreading false information and misusing social media. But she was never officially charged or tried.

Others among the crowd outside Tora prison fanned themselves on hard benches, awaiting permission to visit relatives held inside. Many had brought medicine and plastic bags with food, even though they knew they might not be allowed to give them to prisoners. The rules were constantly changing: Peanuts were sometimes allowed, but only if they were skinned; dates had to be pitted. Today, the guards had told them, the lemons and cucumbers were out.

Mr. Dawoud knew why. Prisoners often tried to smuggle hashish and SIM cards into fruits and vegetables, he said.

Sensing that Mr Dawoud was something of an authority among the crowd, a trio of women approached him, asking if there was anything he could do for their sons. One man had spent eight years in pre-trial detention; another, five.

They were among tens of thousands of Egyptian political prisoners who mostly remain unnamed, many of whom are Islamists – those who never exert Western pressure for their release because hardly anyone knows what happened to them or why. .

Mr. Dawoud gave the mothers his phone number.

“It’s very different on this side, isn’t it? he said to Walid Shawky, another former prisoner who had come to welcome the released prisoners.

Mr. Shawky, a dentist and political activist, had spent four years in pre-trial detention before coming out in April.

“I still don’t feel anything,” he said. “It’s so hard. But I’m trying, step by step.

Mr. Dawoud remembered how it happened.

“The best thing for you is your daughter,” he said. Nour, Mr Shawky’s 5-year-old child, was just getting used to having him around, he said.

Seeing the families waiting to visit him, Mr Dawoud said, filled him with guilt for what his own loved ones had endured. His sister had died while in custody; his father fell ill with cancer and died shortly after his release.

Since his release last year, however, Mr Dawoud said he has been trying to move on. He had married and had a daughter. Today, government officials summoned him to participate in Mr. el-Sisi’s national dialogue. Maybe, he said, but he had one request: free my friends first.

Other opposition figures have also insisted that the government release hundreds of detainees as a condition of joining the dialogue. The sorties followed, although fewer and slower than they had hoped. The government says it has released at least 700, while the opposition puts the figure at around 400.

But even after the release of political prisoners, the chains, for many, remain in one form or another. Most of their cases remain open, allowing their prosecution to resume at any time. Some former prisoners must return to the police stations for nightly or weekly recordings, or on sensitive political anniversaries; others are banned from travel.

In this sense, Mr. Dawoud had been lucky. Now he was cradling a baby in his lap, greeting his former cellmate’s mother, checking his phone, answering a call, then shouting congratulations to another family.

“I never want to come back here again,” he said.

As two hours stretched into three hours and the temperature soared towards 100 degrees, a government photographer materialized – proof, Mr Dawoud said, that the authorities wanted publicity for the statements. But even the official photographer had to wait.

Mrs. Said’s sister, Shorouk Said, was trying to entertain several bored and tired children. She looked tense with exhaustion.

“I’m frozen now. But I think when I see her, everything will change,” she said. “But there is always injustice. We are super happy, but we want to know, why did this happen? »

Men in suits walked back and forth behind the prison gate, smoking and checking their phones.

Mr Dawoud had managed to catch the attention of one of them, a prison official whom he remembered from his time in detention. He waved to her, spreading his hands with exaggerated impatience: When are they going out?

The official pointed twice to the ground, in staccato: Now. Now.

Mr. Dawoud raised his hands, mimicking ecstasy.

“Thank God!” He shouted. “I think Kholoud is coming now.”

Then suddenly he called out his name.

People applauded. The women were screaming, and still screaming. Mute but smiling, Ms. Said hugged her friends and family one by one. The tears fell. Someone’s phone was ringing with the ringtone that all Samsungs play by default, a sentimental swell of violins, but, in the uproar and joy, no one bothered to answer it.

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Newsrust - US Top News: After years of languishing in Egyptian prisons, a sudden release
After years of languishing in Egyptian prisons, a sudden release
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