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In Egypt, relatives of regime critics face state reprisal

On Saturday 26 August, protestors took to the streets in Frankfurt, Germany in front of the Egyptian General Consulate to protest the arbitrary detainment of German resident, Alaa Eladly.

Eladly was arrested earlier this month upon landing in Cairo from Germany, where he currently resides with his family. Over 60 demonstrators held a silent protest with their demand clearly written on signs with the hashtag: #FreeAlaaEladly.

Alaa Eladly’s daughter, Fagr Eladly, however, wasn’t in Frankfurt on Saturday. Instead, flew to Egypt demanding the release of her father in person.

“Today is the most difficult day of my life,” Fagr said in a video posted to Instagram. “After waiting for almost 5 hours, I finally got the chance to speak to my father for only 20 minutes. He tells me that he is forced to sleep on the floor without a bed and was not allowed the right to speak to his lawyer.”

In an interview with The New Arab (TNA), Fagr says that they were never formally contacted about her father’s imprisonment.

“No one contacted us or provided us with any information. It was only around 48 hours after his arrest were we informed by a lawyer that he is being held on the accusation of “spreading false information.”

“We spoke to many lawyers and were told that the government has no evidence against my father and he was not confronted with any proof during his interrogation,” she continued.

On Tuesday August 29th, Alaa Eladly had his first hearing. Fagr says that no evidence was cited against him and yet his detention has been prolonged for an additional 15 days. She believes that her father’s arrest is an act of revenge against her activism abroad.

In 2015, Fagr rose to prominence in Germany after protesting a press conference between former German chancellor Angela Merkel, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. She called him a “fascist” and a “killer” as she raised the four-fingered sign that symbolises the mass killings of anti-Sisi protesters in 2013 at Rabaa Square.

“We will never know for certain, but this is not the first time that the regime has targeted members of my family after my public protest, so to me this connection is very very obvious,” she told TNA.

Unfortunately, Eladly’s detainment is not unique. The targeting of vocal activists and critics as well as their family members is well documented and occurs frequently under Sisi.

In 2018, Nosayba Mahmoud was waiting for her parents to land in Dallas, Texas. They never reached their destination.

Ahmed Abdelnaby and Raia Abdallah were detained by Egyptian authorities on their way out of Egypt. While her mother, Raia, was eventually released, her father, Ahmed, was sent to a maximum security prison, infamously known as Scorpion 2, where he languished till his death due to horrific conditions and severe torture by Egyptian guards.

Nosayba tells TNA that, similar to Fagr, the government never gave a reason for arresting members of her family. Later it was clear it was due to her father’s participation in a protest after Egypt’s bloody military coup in 2013.

Nosayba tried everything. “My sister and I went to members of Congress and met with several representatives and staff. We asked their help to contact the Embassy in Cairo for the government to release my parents,” she said.

“I created a facebook page (Free Raia and Ahmed) to raise awareness about their case, reached out to different human rights org, media outlets, etc. My sister who lives in Vermont even attended different town hall meetings to ask our rep to intervene on our behalf.”

In the end however, Nosayba says that in most cases these advocacy efforts fall on deaf ears.

“It all depends if you have leverage, or if they’re famous or have connections or money. The regime purposefully works to destroy families by arresting their loved ones, seizing their assets and using the detainees as a tool to stop any advocacy work their loved ones may be attempting. They solely aim to deplete their financial resources in prolonged detention periods with no official charges presented,” she said.

In another recent case, on 22 August plainclothes state security forces arrested the father of Belgium-based freelance journalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada, Gamal Abdelhamid Ziada.

The next day, prosecutors charged Gamal Abdelhamid Ziada with identical charges that Alaa Eladly is facing: spreading false information, along with misuse of social media and belonging to a banned group.

Ahmed says that his father had no political affiliation and only used social media to promote his clothing business. Human rights organisations believe his detention is a direct form of retaliation for his son’s work.

There have been dozens of identical cases of arrests of relatives and family members of critics and dissidents and journalists such as the mass arrest of 12 family members of ex-MP, Ahmed Tantawy in April of this year. Human Rights Watch reported that the arrests appear to be solely based on the individuals’ relationship with Tantawy.

Egyptian human rights defender and case manager for The Freedom Initiative, Abdelrahman Ayyash, tells TNA that the rationale behind these arrests is to send a message that if you exercise your rights to free speech, your family will suffer. However, Ayyash says it is difficult to identify a pattern.

“It happened to too many people who have been living outside Egypt for years and it is nearly impossible to know or expect who else will be arrested or targeted,” Ayyash explained.

“The only thing we know for sure is that they are reprisals and are attacks against activists and their families outside of Egypt. But at the same time, we do not know who the regime would see as a threat next,” he added.

“Unfortunately there is a lack of accountability and of course a lack of pressure on the end of Egypt’s international partners. Western governments usually do not comment on the human rights violations that take place in Egypt.”

Fagr Eladly has informed TNA that German authorities and the embassy have inquired about her case with interest, and the country does indeed have a history of sharply criticising the Egyptian government’s violation of human rights and treatment of prisoners.

However, Germany’s stark words and concerns have done little in the past to impact the country’s diplomatic relationships and arms agreements with Sisi’s regime.

For years, Egypt has been the main destination of German arms exports. In 2021, sales to Egypt boosted Germany’s total record exports of €9.35bn ($10.65bn), up by 61 percent from the previous year, and a significant part of the sales were air defence weapons.

In 2022, the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock announced that there will be conditions set on arms sales to Egypt based on the country’s human rights record, yet the impact of these conditions remains to be seen.

International human rights groups are saying this is not enough as all arms sales must halt until Egypt ends cruelty against prisoners.

In the meantime, Ayyash says that the conditions for a majority of prisoners are terrible and quickly deteriorating as they languish there forgotten.

“Although the situation varies, the overwhelming majority of prisoners are in very bad conditions. The accounts that we have been hearing include medical negligence, withholding food and even books. Sometimes when the inmates have money they still cannot buy anything from the canteen or from the cafeteria inside the prison because oftentimes there’s nothing even there.”

“Officers and prison staff attack prisoners without reason and strip them of everything they have in a perverse sense of punishment. It happens regularly and in almost all prisons in Egypt. No, it’s not getting better,” Ayyash said.

Ayyash believes that the only solution is for the international community to put pressure on Egypt to end its attacks against activists and their families, and to ensure visitation arrangements for detainees as well as proper legal procedures.

“Keep putting pressure on Egypt to release these political prisoners and end arbitrary arrests,” he said.

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