On Wednesday, 27 August Egypt’s leading human rights lawyer, Ahmed Seif el-Islam died aged 63 after several days in a coma after heart surgery. As he lay dying, two of his children were behind bars for their political activism.
Seif el-Islam represented people of many backgrounds in Egypt’s repressive legal system. A co-founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (dedicated to defending human rights cases), in 2001 he assisted in the defence of 52 men on trial for “performing immoral acts” in the ‘Queen Boat Trial’ and three years later he represented 15 men allegedly tortured while in detention on terrorism charges.
When blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil was jailed for “insulting Islam” in criticising the teachings of his university (and the regime of then-president Hosni Mubarak), it was Seif el-Islam who represented him. And in 2008 when a wave of strikes triggered repressive reaction from the regime, he represented those charged with organising the protests.
Imprisoned briefly as a student in 1972, and for a lengthy period for political activity during the 1980s, Seif el-Islam was also active in the 2011 revolution. Bizarrely he was arrested in his office and subsequently interrogated by the man who would go on to assume the presidency, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
In the last period Seif el-Islam faced what must have been his most emotionally-draining case: representing his own son, Alaa Abd El Fattah, as the various phases of the new government exacted what can only be described as revenge on one of the leading voices of the revolutionary generation. Three spells of imprisonment have not dampened Alaa’s commitment to political freedom and socialism, although he has written poignantly of the sadness he feels at missing key stages of his own young son’s early life. Now however, with a 15 year prison sentence in front of him on trumped up charges Alaa has recently begun a hunger strike, one of many Egyptian political prisoners to do so during 2014. One of his hopes of the hunger strike, that he be able to spend time with his father during his last days, has already been dashed.
The legal system in Egypt, even after the revolution, is simply perverse. Alaa and the others charged alongside him languished in jail for over 100 days before being released on bail in March this year without any explanation for the change in policy. Barely six weeks later, the judge barred the defendants from entering their own trial, and passed a “guilty” verdict, in absentia, while the defendants protested outside demanding admittance.
Adding insult to injury, the police then seized Alaa from the crowd, and declared him a fugitive!
Since then, he has been serving his sentence and awaiting a promised re-trial, the details of which are still undecided because the courtroom is being “redecorated” with a glass cage so that the defendants can only be heard by those in the court when the judge deigns to turn on a microphone.
In June, one of Seif’s daughters, Sanaa, was also arrested — for taking part in a protest against the legal system’s mistreatment of her brother! She has appeared in court for one day, but then the presiding judge went on holiday and will not return to hear her defence until September — so she waits in jail, while her father underwent heart surgery. Sanaa and Alaa were each permitted a brief visit to their father’s hospital bed last weekend.
The al-Sisi regime has cracked down hard on both the Muslim Brotherhood and the left, seeking to entrench its position as the only political force with freedom to organise.
In January 2014, with his son in jail, Seif spoke to the press, already unwell and leaning on a cane, and addressed the absent Alaa: “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son, but instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”
We cannot allow Seif’s death to go unnoticed outside of Egypt! Freedom to the Egyptian political prisoners, including Alaa and Sanaa!