Egyptian poet Galal al-Behairy has launched a hunger strike to demand his release from prison, where he has been held for the past five years over a poem allegedly against the military.
In a leaked letter from the notorious Badr prison, signed 5 March, Behairy announced that he will be refusing food, his heart treatment and depression tablets, and will gradually abstain from drinking.
“Today begins the sixth year of a life wasted in prison… And today I choose to exercise my constitutional and human right to object to this inhumane situation,” Behairy wrote.
Behairy was arrested on 3 March 2018 after the release of a song, Balaha, based on his poem, which indirectly poked fun at Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former defence minister who came to power after a military coup in 2013.
“Behind me are many shameful accusations, the bottom of which is lying and the apex is terrorism. Many charges of which I only committed one crime – poetry,” he wrote from prison.
A military court found him guilty of blasphemy, publishing “fake news” and “insulting the military”, and sentenced him to three years in prison.
“The strike will continue until I regain my freedom by getting out the prison, alive or dead,” Behairy ended his letter from his cell number 2/55 in Badr 1.
The Badr prison complex, where Behairy is held, includes three prisons, the most notorious of which is Badr 3, where many high-profile political prisoners are incarcerated.
Even though Behairy completed his sentence, he remains in the prison on the outskirts of Cairo.
The Badr prison complex, which opened in December 2021, was touted by Sisi as a model in human rights compliance, and a part of his National Human Rights Strategy. But rights groups have criticised it for poor human rights and falling short of international standards.
Egyptian jails hold an estimated 65,000 political prisoners, arrested for their opposition to Sisi’s government, according to a report released by the Arabic Network for Human Rights in March 2021.
Behairy is among the detainees who were moved from the infamous Tora prison to Badr 1, along with former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, 71, who was detained in 2018.
“It was supposed to be at least on the same level but since the transfer, no, it’s much harder, the situation is worse and there’s no justification,” his son, Hozaifa Aboul Fotouh, told Reuters in February.
He said his father spent 12 days in the same clothes in the new prison and no longer has the mattress he previously had at Tora to support his back. He said he had been denied enough blankets to fend off the winter cold.
Inmates across Egypt’s prisons have long reported abuses, including systemic torture and life-threatening conditions.
Four prisoners died at the Badr facility because of medical negligence last year, including 47-year-old Alaa el-Salmy who was on hunger strike for two months over prison conditions, according to the rights groups Egyptian Front for Human Rights and Egyptian Network for Human Rights.
Hundreds of people have perished in prison since Sisi came to power in a 2013 coup due to medical negligence and lack of an urgent care system when a detainee suffers a medical emergency, including the late president Mohammed Morsi and former MP Essam el-Erian.