‘It’s Worse Than Any Time Before’Egypt Clamps Down on Activists as COP27 Begins
Far from turning a new page, the Egyptian Government have continued their repressive measures of random detentions and mistreatment of environmental campaigners
Egypt is hosting world leaders for the COP27 UN climate change summit while undertaking an unprecedented crackdown on activists and committing appalling human rights abuses, the families of those detained have said.
While high-profile cases, such as that of author Alaa Abdel Fattah, have received international attention ahead of the event, relatives of campaigners either detained or slapped with travel bans for their activism say there are thousands of cases of individuals wrongfully detained and subjected to horrendous mistreatment.
The relatives told Byline Times that they live in fear for the safety of their loved ones, and warned that a government scheme to release some prisoners to coincide with COP27 is a facade.
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Ahmed Abdelsattar Amasha, an environmentalist and human rights activist, has been detained since 2020. He was arrested, brutally tortured, sexually assaulted, beaten so hard his ribs were broken and was held incommunicado for 25 days until his family finally found out his whereabouts. He is currently incarcerated in Badr 3 prison, northeast of Cairo, which Amnesty International said last month was keeping inmates in “cruel and inhuman” conditions.
His son Mohamed said his father’s situation was dire, even as authorities severely limit the news coming out of Badr 3.
“The last description we got was from one week ago. The lights are turned on all the time, 24 hours. There is a camera that watches them 24 hours. The guards communicate with them through microphones, disregarding the time of day or whether people are sleeping or not. The one thing you might get in a prison, a bit of privacy, is stolen from them,” he said.
Amasha said it was impossible for family members to visit Ahmed, and prisoners are not permitted to meet with their legal team.
“Lawyers see you through a camera just to make sure you exist,” he said.
One activist, who asked that his name be withheld as he feared arrest, said that the authorities in major cities were carrying out random detentions on the streets ahead of COP.
“They arrest anyone who participates in any public activity, no matter the activity. Any expression of an opinion that is different from the point of view of the Egyptian regime,” he said.
He was one of several activists to confirm that police were currently stopping people and demanding access to their phones before scrolling through social media posts in search of any evidence of dissent.
The activist, who has been detained under several regimes since the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, said the human rights situation under current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – who seized power in a coup in 2013 – was the worst he had ever experienced.
“It’s worse than any time before. There is forced disappearance happening in Egypt today. There is illegal killing. There is imprisonment based on fictional accusations and without referral,” he said.
“Young people are now being detained for 3 or 4 years without their cases being referred to a judge for a decision because there are no accusations. These people stay in prison.”
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Jess Kelly, a British documentary maker, is the wife of Karim Ennarah, who was the criminal justice director at the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights when he was detained in 2020. Although Ennarah was released, he is banned from leaving the country and has had his assets frozen for more than two years.
Kelly said that there were countless other human rights advocates either detained or in limbo, even as Egypt burnishes its credentials as an international leader at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh.
She said that despite there being a designated area where protests can be held – with prior consent by the organisers – “even there I don’t think Egyptian civil society will be able to freely protest because they will be worried about the repercussions.”
“People would do well to remember that there are many very important members of civil society who should be engaging in this really important intersection between human rights and climate change who can’t go because of restrictions like travel bans, or fear of rearrest,” said Kelly.
“We all have to be careful that this event doesn’t end up greenwashing Egypt’s reputation.”
She said that, while some prisoners had been released ahead of the summit, the Government’s much-vaunted National Dialogue on reconciliation was not so straightforward as it is being presented to international audiences.
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“To Western allies like the US and the UK it looks like Egypt is improving its human rights record, but actually, these people aren’t free, they are still being repressed, unable to leave the country or live any kind of normal life,” she said of those released. “And meanwhile, the rate of arrests far outpaces the rate of releases.”
Amasha said the summit was little more than “a political move that says to the people outside that we are a progressive country that cares about the environment.”
“But I think the more important message is for people inside the country: that despite our violations we are able to get international legitimacy, we’re able to convince the world that we’re a safe place,” he said.
“It’s a challenge to activists, that what you are doing is not working, we’re able to trump all of your efforts simply by having this reception.”
“Egypt is arresting people who are the most eligible to speak about how it can deal with environmental rights and the climate. And it’s also arresting people demanding human rights, which are inseparable from human rights,” said Amasha.
And Egyptian civil society fears worse to come once the menagerie of COP27, which sees thousands of delegates, scientists, NGOs and media gather for two weeks of painstaking negotiations, is over.
The activist who spoke anonymously was detained the day before he was due to speak with Byline Times but was later released.
“The state wants to spread a lie: that it’s releasing activists and respecting human rights, that it’s turning a new page. But this isn’t true. Those who are released are tracked and arrested again.
“I am afraid. I don’t know how I can move on with my life. I can’t feel safe because I’m at risk of being detained again at every moment,” he said.
“My life has been destroyed. I have no future. I didn’t finish my university education. I don’t have a career. I don’t feel safe. I feel in danger. I don’t know how to describe things other than my life has stopped.”