Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Journalists on hunger strike

Several jailed journalists have gone on hunger strike to protest against their detention in Cairo’s Al-Aqrab Prison, reports Mona El-Nahhas

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The freedom of Egypt’s journalists will top the agenda at the general assembly of the Press Syndicate tomorrow at the organisation’s downtown headquarters in Cairo.

“Kidnapping, detention, torture, restrictions on publishing and all forms of pressure put on journalists will be discussed during Friday’s general assembly meeting,” Khaled Al-Balshi, head of the Press Syndicate’s Freedoms Committee told Al-Ahram Weekly. Tomorrow’s general assembly meeting comes nearly a week after Hesham Gaafar, a journalist and researcher, together with eight other journalists jailed at the Al-Aqrab Prison, went on hunger strike to protest against the “inhuman conditions of their detention”.

On Sunday, it was reported that Gaafar and Hossam Al-Sayed, another hunger-striking journalist, had been transported to Tora Prison Hospital as their health had deteriorated due to the lack of food.

The other hunger-striking journalists are Magdi Hussein, Hassan Al-Qabbani, Ahmed Sebei, Hani Salah Eddin, Waleed Shalabi, Ahmed Saleh and Mohamed Nawareg. Most of them are said to be suffering from poor health and need to be moved to hospitals outside prison.

On Monday, Al-Balshi and a group from the Syndicate Council and a delegation of the detained journalists’ relatives staged an open sit-in at the headquarters of the syndicate as an act of protest.

Gaafar said in a post on his Facebook page on Saturday that he and the other hunger strikers were being mistreated and denied basic needs and visitation rights at the Al-Aqrab Prison, a heavily secured section of Cairo’s Tora Prison complex.

Gaafar, chairman of the Mada Foundation for Media Development, and his colleague Al-Sayed, were both arrested on 21 October after security forces raided their NGO premises. The two have been detained on charges of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group and receiving foreign funds in exchange for information that harms Egypt’s national security.

Their detention has been renewed nine times since investigations started.

Article 78 of the penal code, as amended by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in September 2014, allows for those found guilty of using foreign funds to harm state security to be sentenced to life in prison or even death.

Gaafar’s arrest has been condemned by many international organisations, including the rights group Amnesty International, which has described it as “unlawful”.

Dozens of public figures and civil society organisations have been pressing for Gaafar’s release, viewing his case as an assault on academic and other freedoms and warning it could be the start of a campaign targeting NGOs.

In an article published in Al-Watan newspaper on 3 November, prominent writer Ammar Ali Hassan called upon the authorities to release both Gaafar and Al-Sayed, saying that the measures taken against them were a “deviation” from regular security procedures.

In an open letter to the Press Syndicate sent last Thursday, the hunger strikers said their protest came “to stop the wave of slow death we are facing”. The violations committed against them mentioned in the letter include solitary confinement, a lack of ventilation inside their prison cells and a lack of food, medical care and warm clothes for winter.

The letter also protests against the visiting restrictions that the families of the detained journalists face. Family members have complained that they have had to wait all night outside the prison in unsafe conditions to get permission to visit the following morning. Sometimes, they are denied such permission.

In December, the state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) paid a number of visits to the Al-Aqrab Prison after receiving reports of violations committed against detainees. Following the NCHR inspections, prison authorities relaxed controls over visitation rights and improved detention conditions, but the restrictions have now once again been imposed, according to the families.

“In the light of the deteriorating political climate, this is the most the NCHR can do. Its role and capacities are limited,” Al-Balshi said.

Following a meeting with the families of the detained journalists on Saturday, members of the Press Syndicate Council submitted a complaint to the prosecutor-general asking for an investigation into the detention of the jailed journalists in the Al-Aqrab Prison.

This is not the first complaint to be presented to the prosecution authorities. In 2015, the syndicate filed more than 60 complaints, getting only a limited response.

The Press Syndicate has also addressed the Interior Ministry and called for the detainees to be granted the rights stipulated in the laws regulating prison affairs. It has called for improvements to be made to the conditions of the detained journalists, for them to be offered medical care, and for the lifting of visitation restrictions imposed upon their families.

The syndicate also renewed its request for all the detained journalists to be moved from Al-Aqrab Prison and for a syndicate delegation to meet them regularly. It presented a list of the names of all the detained journalists to both the prosecutor-general and the Interior Ministry and called for their release.

Some 27 journalists are currently being detained on different charges, including belonging to the outlawed Brotherhood group or instigating violence by publishing false news. In a statement published in December, the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists said that Egypt came second only to China as the world’s worst jailers of journalists.

Last August, President Al-Sisi denied that any journalist was being detained in a case related to publishing. “We have unprecedented freedom of expression in Egypt. No one can ban anyone working in the media or journalism or on TV from expressing their views,” Al-Sisi told CNN last September.

In a later development, the Egyptian Coordination Committee for Rights and Freedoms, an NGO, last week launched an international campaign to pressure the authorities into closing Al-Aqrab Prison. Built in 1993, it holds political offenders, especially those with Islamist affiliations.

“What happens at the Al-Aqrab Prison is a crime against humanity and a systematic violation of human rights and the UN Convention,” the Coordination Committee said in a statement on 26 February. The statement noted that 15 Al-Aqrab inmates had died in 2015 because of alleged medical negligence and deteriorating detention conditions.

“Our concern is not limited to jailed journalists. The syndicate will keep on pressing for improving detention conditions for all inmates at the Al-Aqrab Prison,” Al-Balshi said, noting that the issue was related to rights and freedoms in general.

“If there is no freedom, there will be no journalism in Egypt,” he said.

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