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Family fears for health of activist on hunger strike in Egyptian jail

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The family of one of Egypt’s best-known regime critics fears for his health after almost seven weeks of hunger strike mostly spent in prison conditions labelled “inhumane” by British lawmakers.

Alaa Abdel Fattah, a dual Egyptian and British national who has spent eight of the past 10 years behind bars, rose to prominence during the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the autocratic president who ruled Egypt for 30 years.

The 40-year-old software developer was first convicted of organising an unauthorised demonstration at the end of 2013. His most recent conviction was in December on a charge of “spreading false news that undermines national security” for a social media post.

Abdel Fattah was sentenced to a further five years in prison, on top of two years that he had already spent in pre-trial detention. He went on hunger strike last month and has demanded access to lawyers and a UK consular visit.

“We are extremely worried about him,” said his aunt, novelist Ahdaf Souief. “All he can see in front of him is an endless vista of a life he cannot live.”

On Wednesday — his 47th day of hunger strike — the interior ministry said that Abdel Fattah was moved to a newly built prison in Wadi el Natrun north-west of Cairo in response to the request of the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights. Until then, he had been held in a maximum-security prison where he was not allowed exercise, reading materials, a watch or radio.

Abdell Fattah’s family say requests by the British embassy for consular access to him have not been granted. He became a British citizen late last year through his mother who was born in the UK.

His aunt said the move to a new prison was “good in terms of daily conditions”, but also noted that Abdel Fattah was in December sentenced on one charge only from an array levelled against him. “It could mean they have a few more up their sleeve for when the five years are up,” she said.

Souief saw him in prison on Thursday and said he was determined to press on with his strike until he received a consular visit and was given access to lawyers representing him in Egypt and the UK.

Mubarak’s downfall following the 2011 revolution ushered in a brief and chaotic democratic experiment that ended in 2013 when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the current president and former military officer, led a popularly-backed coup against an elected Islamist president.

The authorities declared the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation that won elections in 2012, a terrorist group and thousands of Islamists were arrested. Secular activists, journalists, bloggers and other regime critics have also been swept up in crackdowns against expressions of dissent.

Abdel Fattah completed a five-year sentence in 2019 following his first conviction. He was released under probationary measures, which required him to spend every night in a police station. Six months later, he was arrested again, and so was his lawyer Ahmed Baqer, who is serving a four-year sentence.

A group of British members of parliament and peers on Wednesday wrote to the UK government requesting urgent action on the case of Abdel Fattah. They described the conditions in which he has been held as “inhumane.”

They called on the government to “use all means possible” to secure consular access to him, to insist on improvements to his prison conditions and to “press for his release, either within Egypt or to the UK.”

Abdel Fattah’s mother, Laila Soueif, a university professor, had tried repeatedly in previous weeks to deliver to him a clean sheet, a couple of T-shirts and books at the maximum security prison but the authorities there refused to allow the items in.

The Egyptian government last year announced a new human rights strategy in a move seen by some as an attempt to deflect international criticism of the country’s record. The aim of the strategy, outlined in a document, is to improve civil, political, and human rights over a five-year period.

In April, Egyptian authorities released some 40 people, including secular critics, journalists and democracy activists who had been held in pre-trial detention. Sisi has promised there would be more releases from lists to be presented to him by a special “amnesty commission.”

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