Egypt Starts ‘Medical Intervention’ on Prominent Political Prisoner, Family Says

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SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — The Egyptian authorities have begun a “medical intervention” for the country’s best known political prisoner, Alaa Abd El Fattah, whose long hunger strike has cast a shadow on this week’s United Nations climate summit in Egypt, one of his sisters said on Thursday.

The sister, Mona Seif, posted the update on Facebook five days after her brother escalated his seven-month hunger strike by refusing to drink water as the climate conference opened in the Egyptian Red Sea resort city of Sharm el Sheikh. Another sister, Sanaa Seif, said this week at the summit that her family feared he was being force fed.

“If that’s the case, then he has been plunged into an even worse nightmare than he was already in,” she said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Mr. Abd El Fattah has not been heard from since he stopped drinking water. But in another indication that he is alive, a prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer, Khaled Ali, said in a brief interview that he had gotten permission to visit Mr. Abd El Fattah at Wadi el-Natroun prison near Cairo and was on his way there on Thursday afternoon.

In the Facebook post, Mona Seif said that the medical intervention was being carried out with the knowledge of judicial authorities, but added that neither her family nor her brother’s lawyers had been told about it.

Senior Egyptian officials, including President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, have faced growing pressure at the climate conference to release Mr. Abd El Fattah. Their statements in meetings and interviews have left room for the possibility that the authorities are keeping Mr. Abd El Fattah fed against his will, though they have cast it as an effort to simply provide health care.

Credit…Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. el-Sisi told the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in a private meeting that he would ensure Mr. Abd El Fattah’s health was “preserved,” according to the French account of the conversation.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, also raised his case directly with Mr. el-Sisi, as did Rishi Sunak, the new prime minister of Britain, where Mr. Abd El Fattah holds dual citizenship through his mother.

Weeks after Mr. Abd El Fattah began his hunger strike in April, the Egyptian authorities responded by moving him to a different prison with better conditions. He began drinking 100 calories’ worth of milk and honey in his tea daily, but persisted in refusing other food in an attempt to pressure the government into releasing him, or at least allowing consular visits from British officials.

But Egypt remained unmoved, prompting him to stop drinking water and his family to take the campaign to free him to the climate conference.

Mr. el-Sisi’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, has deflected questions from journalists at the climate summit about whether Egypt should release him, suggesting in response to queries about his hunger strike that Mr. Abd El Fattah was receiving medical treatment.

In an interview with CNBC, Mr. Shoukry said he was “confident that prison authorities will provide the health care available to all prisoners, as is the case in any other penal system.” He also cast doubt on whether Mr. Abd El Fattah was actually on a hunger strike.

Mr. Shoukry also defended the legal process that convicted Mr. Abd El Fattah, saying he was found guilty of spreading false news — a charge stemming from a Facebook post in which Mr. Abd El Fattah had described human rights violations in prison — in a fair trial.

The idea that Mr. Abd El Fattah is a convicted criminal who should receive no special treatment has dominated government officials’ and government supporters’ discussion of the case this week.

Each time Sanaa Seif has spoken at public events at the conference, drawing more than 100 supporters, journalists and other onlookers, she has faced questions from Egyptians asking why her brother should be prioritized over other prisoners after having broken the law. A few have also defended national sovereignty, asking why Egypt should have to cave to pressure from the West.

On Tuesday, U.N. security officers hustled an Egyptian lawmaker out of Ms. Seif’s news conference after he criticized her for “calling for a presidential pardon for a convicted prisoner” and interrupted her when she began responding to his question.

Ms. Seif said that the family had asked for a pardon only after exhausting other legal avenues, and added that the false news charge was hard to credit as a true crime because the authorities could name no victims.

“We speak about freedom of expression, yet when someone says something against the general mood of the meeting, then he gets shut down,” Moushira Khattab, the head of the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights, said in an interview on Wednesday. “He’s a member of Parliament. He has a point of view. He’s the representative of the people.”

She, too, questioned why Mr. Abd El Fattah was receiving more attention than other prisoners, and said the family’s campaign at the summit and foreign pressure could end up backfiring as Egyptian spines stiffen at the interference. Ms. Seif was “undermining the legitimacy of a political system,” she said, more than advocating for a single prisoner.

“When you antagonize, will this be conducive to receiving a pardon?” she said.

By Wednesday night, the government backlash to Ms. Seif had intensified.

Egyptian news media reported that a legal complaint had been filed with the prosecutor-general accusing Ms. Seif of conspiring with foreign agencies hostile to Egypt and spreading false news, the same charge leveled against her brother.

Ms. Seif previously spent a year and a half in detention, from 2020 to 2021. She was arrested as she was filing a complaint about being beaten outside Tora Prison, where she was criticizing the conditions under which her brother was then being held as the coronavirus pandemic hit Egypt.


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