CAIRO – The family of imprisoned Egyptian pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah demanded word on his condition after prison authorities on Thursday told them he was undergoing an undefined medical intervention and blocked a lawyer from seeing him.
The dramatic developments came days after Abdel-Fattah escalated his hunger strike and stopped drinking water.
One of Abdel-Fattah's sisters, Sanaa Seif, called on President Joe Biden to intervene in his case when he meets Egypt's president on Friday on the sidelines of the annual U.N. climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. The family has expressed fears that authorities are force-feeding Abdel-Fattah, who wrote to his family that he was willing to die in the strike unless he was freed.
“I’m really scared,” she said. “I don’t know for sure (what happened), but I’m imagining that Alaa is handcuffed somewhere. He’s been put on IVs against his will.”
“Please find a solution," she said, addressing the Egyptian government. "Our loss will be the biggest. It’s not good for anybody. Why is this happening? Why has it gone this far?”
His mother, Laila Soueif, said she was having difficulty imagining that authorities would actually let her son go after the yearslong ordeal.
“I think the chances are very high that he will not get out and that he will not be safe,” she told The Associated Press. “So I can't really imagine (a time) after."
Abdel-Fattah, who has been imprisoned for most of the past decade, had been consuming minimal calories for months but stopped all intake of food and water on Sunday, the first day of the climate conference, known as COP27.
At the Sharm el-Sheikh gathering, 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.
But so far Egyptian officials have shown no sign of bending. Rather, they've tried to portray Abdel-Fattah as not being on a hunger strike at all. Late Thursday, Egypt's public prosecutor released a statement, saying a medical team had examined Abdel-Fattah after receiving a complaint from him on Nov. 1 and that he was found to be in stable health. The statement did not specify when exactly the checkups took place, or at what stage in his hunger or water strike, only that Abdel-Fattah had willingly underwent them.
The nature of the most recent medical intervention was also not immediately known, and it was not clear if he was moved to a prison hospital. At the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard expressed alarm 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.
At least 40 prisoners have died in Egyptian prisons this year, according to the al-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. Among them was Alaa al-Salmi, who died in late October after being on hunger strike for several weeks.
A family lawyer, Khaled Ali, said officials at the prison refused to allow him to visit Abdel-Fattah despite approval by the prosecutors’ office for the visit. He 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 on Thursday morning.
Abdel-Fattah is serving a five-year sentence on charges of disseminating false news for sharing a Facebook post about a prisoner who died in custody in 2019.
Soueif, his mother, has been waiting outside the Wadi el-Natroun prison complex in the desert north of Cairo every day this week, seeking proof of life of her son. She said Thursday that prison officials spoke to her outside the prison gates but refused to take a letter from her to him.
She asked them if he was undergoing any medical procedure and they said he was. She asked “if it was by force, and they said no” and told her, “Alaa is good,” she told the AP.
“I need proof for this. I don’t trust them,” she said. The family said in a statement that its lawyers were demanding information on the substance of the “medical intervention” and that Abdel-Fattah be immediately moved to a civilian hospital.
“You have to factor in the fact that in this country, things don’t happen as planned, (there is) ignorance and ineptitude, they could kill him without meaning to kill him,” Soueif said.
Abdel-Fattah rose to fame during the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings that swept through the Middle East, toppling Egypt’s long-time President Hosni Mubarak. He has been imprisoned several times, and has spent a total of nine years behind bars, becoming a symbol of Egypt’s sliding back to an even more autocratic rule under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Egypt’s hosting of the climate summit has drawn intensified international attention to its heavy 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 monitoring social media.
Speaking to the AP on Thursday at the conference, Egypt’s 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 that are not directly pertaining to the climate might detract from the attention and … give justification to maybe those who would prefer to concentrate on other issues to avoid having to deal with what they need to do, how they need to implement their obligations and responsibilities,” he said.
“So, again, it is up to the parties to put the emphasis on the issues that are most important to them,” he said.