CAIRO – Amnesty International's head on Sunday warned that the proceedings of COP27 in Egypt could be stained by the death of one of the country's leading rights activists from a hunger and water strike in prison if Egyptian authorities do not release him within days.
Secretary General of Amnesty International Agnes Callamard said Egypt had no more than 72 hours to save the life of jailed dissident Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is also a U.K. citizen.
Egypt’s hosting of the climate summit, known as COP27, has trained a spotlight on its human rights record as a wide-reaching crackdown continues under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. The conference is being held in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.
“If they do not want to end up with a death they should have and could have prevented, they must act now,” Callamard said at a news briefing in the capital Cairo.
Callamard said she will be attending COP27 to push for action on human rights issues related to climate change, including loss and damage or reparations from richer countries to vulnerable nations suffering from climate change. Egypt is a proponent of the issue.
But she will also be there to push for immediate action on the case of prominent Egyptian activist and U.K. citizen Alaa Abdel Fattah and that of the tens of thousands of political prisoners estimated to be inside the country’s jails, she said.
Opposition figure Abdel-Fattah escalated his hunger strike this week, refusing also water, to coincide with the first day of the COP27, according to his family. His aunt, the writer Ahdaf Soueif, said he stopped drinking water at 10 a.m. local time on Sunday, amid growing concerns about his health.
Alaa Abdel-Fattah hails from a family of well-known Egyptian activists and rose to prominence with the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East and in Egypt toppled long-time President Hosni Mubarak. The 40-year old activist spent most of the past decade behind bars and his detention has become a symbol of Egypt’s return to autocratic rule. For more than six months, he has been on a partial hunger strike, consuming only 100 calories a day.
In April, Abdel Fattah's family announced he had obtained British citizenship through his mother, Laila Soueif, a math professor at Cairo University who was born in London. The family has criticized U.K. leaders for failing to push harder for a consular visit to him in the detention facility.
On Sunday, his family released a letter they had received from the U.K.'s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who will be attending COP27. The letter said the global summit is an opportunity to raise Abdel Fattah's case “with the Egyptian leadership.” Sunak will "continue to stress to President (el-Sissi) the importance that we attach to the swift resolution of Alaa’s case and an end to his unacceptable treatment," it added.
The prime minister's office confirmed the contents of the letter.
Abdel-Fattah's younger sister, Sanaa Seif, meanwhile, landed in Sharm el-Sheikh early Monday, coming on a flight from London through the Turkish city of Istanbul, her family said.
“I’m here to do my best to try and and shed light on my brother’s case and to save him,” Seif said upon her arrival. “Today (Sunday) he took his last glass of water, so it’s a matter of hours. I’m really worried. I’m also here to put pressure on world leaders coming.”
She is expected to take part along with Callamard in Egypt's human rights situation on the sidelines of the COP27. Seif, also a rights defender who had been imprisoned for one year over charges of spreading false news and insulting a police officer, will focus on the case of her brother and other jailed activists.
Seif, who is also a British citizen, had staged a sit-in at the headquarters of Britain’s Foreign Ministry in recent weeks, part of a rallying campaign to push the U.K. to take action in her brother's s case.
Since 2013, el-Sissi, a U.S. ally with deep economic ties to European countries, has overseen a massive crackdown, jailing thousands of Islamists, but also secular activists involved in the country’s 2011 uprising. Many other activists, journalists and academics have fled the country.
Amnesty also said Sunday it had documented a new wave in the government’s crackdown. There have been 766 Egyptian political prisoners released in the run-up to the conference, Callamard said, according to the group’s figures. She added that more than 1,500 people have been arrested since April, including more than 150 in just the past two weeks.
The latest sweep came after the Muslim Brotherhood, designated a terrorist group and driven largely into exile, called for anti-government protests on Nov. 11, aiming to take advantage of Egypt’s worsening economic hardships and global attention on COP27.
Other rights groups also criticized Egypt on Sunday for restricting protests and stepping up surveillance during the summit.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it had had joined about 1,400 groups from around the world urging Egypt to lift the restrictions on civil society groups, and also expressed concern about the new rounds of arrest.
“It is becoming clear that Egypt’s government has no intention of easing its abusive security measures and allowing for free speech and assembly,” Adam Coogle, the group’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.