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Egypt: Poet jailed for criticising army attempted suicide in prison

Egyptian poet Galal al-Behairy attempted to kill himself in prison where he has been held for five years, according to the Pen International rights group.

“Behairy, an honorary member of English PEN, attempted to commit suicide on 9 September,” the organisation said in a statement on Monday. The freedom of expression NGO said Behairy’s suicide attempt took place four days after he resumed a hunger strike “in protest against his prolonged arbitrary detention”.

Behairy, currently held in Badr Prison 1, was sentenced to three years in prison in the summer of 2018 for writing a book of poetry allegedly criticising the Egyptian army.

He was found guilty of “blasphemy”, publishing “false news” and “insulting the military establishment” and fined $560.

He faced a simultaneous trial at a civilian court over the same charges, according to his lawyer.

Behairy was arrested on 3 March 2018 after the release of Balaha, a song that indirectly poked fun at Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former defence minister who came to power after a military coup in 2013.

Shady Habash, the film director and photographer who directed the song, died in Tora prison three years ago, in circumstances rights groups denounced as medical negligence that led to his death.

Ramy Essam, who performed the song, is currently in exile in Sweden.

“We are deeply concerned about his health and well-being and hold the Egyptian authorities fully responsible for his suicide attempt,” Pen said.

Although Behairy was due to be released two years ago, the public prosecution brought new charges against him and ordered his pre-trial detention on charges of “joining a terrorist group and spreading false news”.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom reported in March that he had launched a hunger strike for three months to protest his mistreatment in jail and the authorities’ denial of basic needs, such as pen and paper, and the restrictions on his visits.

On 5 September, he restarted his hunger strike, according to the commission.

Pen said that Behairy reached “the maximum legal limit of pre-trial detention” on that same day.

“We are devastated to hear that such a prominent young poet nearly lost his life in prison, and are relieved to learn that he survived his suicide attempt,” Burhan Sonmez, Pen International’s president, said.

Behairy “has done nothing but write poetry. He should be living his life as a free man… not languishing in prison”, he said.

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