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Egypt frees prominent activist amid calls for prisoner releases due to coronavirus pandemic

Egyptian authorities released a prominent political activist on Friday amid widespread calls for Cairo to let thousands of others go free to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading among the prison population.

The wife of Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a doctor who was at the forefront of Egypt’s 2011 pro-democracy protest movement, said her husband was out after spending nearly two years in detention over charges of insulting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

It was not immediately clear if Harb’s release came in response to a campaign calling for political prisoners’ release amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to human rights groups, there are tens of thousands jailed in Egypt for their political views.

On Thursday, state prosecutors ordered the release of Harb along with 14 other prominent critics of Egypt’s government, according to Nasser Amin, a member of the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights.

The remaining detainees are expected to be released soon after completing all necessary paperwork, Amin told The Associated Press.

“The government has heeded the demands of the human rights movement but it is still not enough,” said Amin. a human rights lawyer. “This step should be followed immediately and quickly by the release of all other people held in pre-trial detention.”

Thousands of people are currently held in Egyptian trials awaiting trials, according to rights groups. Among them are some of the more than 3,000 people arrested in September last year in the most recent crackdown on dissent following rare protests against Sisi.

Also on Friday, Egypt’s health ministry announced that the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases has reached 285 including eight deaths.

The number of recovered patients that were discharged from the quarantine has reached 39, added the statement posted on an official government Facebook page.

The mother of a prominent Egyptian activist was released from detention after her arrest the previous day for staging a protest demanding that prisoners be released amid the coronavirus pandemic, her daughter said.

Laila Soueif, the mother of jailed activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, was released late Thursday after being arrested a day earlier along with her daughter, sister and another female activist.

The women, including world-famous novelist Ahdaf Soueif, had rallied outside the headquarters of Egypt’s Cabinet in downtown Cairo raising banners reading: “Release prisoners.”

The four women were charged with violating the country’s strict ban on protests with their small gathering and of spreading fake news about Egypt’s over-crowded correctional facilities.

Abdel Fattah’s family have all been vocal rights activists in Egypt. Abdel Fattah, a 38-year-old software engineer, grew into a figurehead of the pro-democracy protest movement on social media during the 2011 uprising that removed longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

The activist served a five-year prison sentence for violating Egypt’s protest ban. In September, not long after his release, he was arrested again amid a widespread crackdown on protests, although he did not participate in them.

Human rights advocates around the globe are echoing demands to reduce incarceration, arguing that prisons can be breeding grounds for the spread of the virus, which leads to the disease Covid-19.

Several countries in the region that were hit by the novel coronavirus have already started releasing prisoners, including Iran and Bahrain.

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