4 - 10 July 2002
Issue No. 593
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
A race against timeThe controversy surrounding the four Egyptian students in desperate need of medical treatment abroad, and the UK's refusal to grant them visas, continues to heat up. Jailan Halawi reports
Injured on 9 April as they demonstrated with other Alexandria University students in solidarity with the Palestinians, Mohamed Fawzi, Tareq Shehata, Sabri Mohamed and Hisham Khaled remain -- nearly three months later -- desperately involved in a search for a country that will allow them access to the urgent medical help they need.
When anti-riot police forces used shot gun pellets to disperse the demonstrators that day, the small pellets pierced the four students' eyes, causing severe damage. Examined by five university professors at the Alexandria University Hospital, the doctors collectively opined that the students would need sensitive surgery that would be difficult to perform in Egypt. Their recommendation: that the students be treated abroad.
As such, the medical council attached to the prime minister's office decided to send the four students to the UK for medical treatment at the government's expense. After the necessary paperwork was completed, and the Ministry of Health had chosen and sent payment to London Bridge Hospital, the students thought it would only be a matter of obtaining what they assumed would be "guaranteed" visas to the UK -- since they were only seeking medical help.
The British Embassy in Cairo, however, twice denied them entry visas. According to Gareth Bayley, the embassy's press attaché, "the refusal was due to the applicants' failure to persuade the visa officer that they will leave the UK following their treatment." According to Bayley, being sent by the Egyptian government for treatment in the UK is not enough of a guarantee of the students' return. "What will the Egyptian government do if these students overstayed their visa?" he asked. "Will it send its police to force them back?"
Fawzi, one of the unfortunate students, thinks the embassy's refusal has more to do with the fact that he and his colleagues were wounded at a university demonstration. The British Embassy assumed they were trouble-makers, he said, and hence decided "it does not need problems on its soil".
Fawzi recounts that from the moment they approached the embassy -- even before the immigration officer reviewed their medical reports -- "she [the immigration officer] advised us in a harsh tone to save our money, for there was no hope of us setting foot in the UK."
The UK's refusal has triggered the wrath of 11 Egyptian human rights organisations, and two opposition parties. In a statement issued on 25 June and directed towards the British Embassy, the groups described the embassy's attitude as a "violation of basic human rights". The groups also staged a brief sit-in in front of the embassy last Tuesday, in which they demanded a meeting with the ambassador for clarification. According to Magda Adly of the Nadim Centre for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, "the ambassador met us in the street in front of the embassy, treated us with insolence and pointed out that there is no way the applications will be accepted."
"We are racing against time," she told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Each of the students is in danger of permanently losing all sight in the injured eye, and the element of time is not in their favour," she said.
The human rights organisations are accusing the British Embassy of applying new discriminatory rules against Arabs following the 11 September attacks on the US, an accusation which was vehemently denied by the British ambassador. In a letter sent to the Weekly in response to a front-page article published two weeks ago ("Out of sight", Al-Ahram Weekly, issue 591), the ambassador insisted that "British visa officers world- wide apply the same set of immigration rules, as laid down by the British Parliament before 11 September."
In response to the ambassador's letter, a statement received by the Weekly this week from Al-Nadim Centre (see p12) says "we have no recourse, under the circumstances, but to ask other parties to arbitrate our differences with his excellency the ambassador. Therefore, we are in the process of sending the entire file, and also the ambassador's response to Al-Ahram Weekly, to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the UK foreign office, the UK Parliament, and various human rights organisations."
The Weekly has also received a letter via e-mail from Jim Turner, a British citizen, condemning his government's position (see p12). In his letter, Turner wrote that he wanted "you and your readers to know that I and many people with whom I have discussed this story have written to our Members of Parliament complaining about this outrage".
In the midst of all the back and forth wrangling, there may still be a glimmer of hope for the ill-fated students, with efforts being made to send them to France for the urgently-needed medical treatment.
According to Al-Nadim's Adly, "the French Embassy in Cairo has expressed its disdain regarding the British Embassy's position, as well as its willingness to receive the boys." Adly said she hopes "the Egyptian government speeds up the procedures necessary to save the last ray of light in the students' injured eyes".
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