Alaa Abdel Fattah: Jailed British-Egyptian activist escalates hunger strike

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Jailed British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah is beginning a new stage of his hunger strike, according to his family, who fear for his life.

It comes amid growing calls for his release as Egypt prepares to host the COP27 climate summit this weekend.

For more than 200 days, Abdel Fattah has taken in just 100 calories to push Egypt to allow British consular access.

The 40-year-old has told relatives he will now drink only water until Sunday and then plans to stop even that.

“Alaa is using the only tool available to him, his body, to fight for life. Right now he’s not living like a human being,” his sister Sanaa Seif told me. “He’s very frail already. I worry about him dying.”

When she last saw him in prison – behind a plastic screen, on one of the monthly visits which he is allowed – he was “skin on bone”, with sunken eyes and little energy, she says.

As delegates prepare to fly to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh for the COP27 summit, Ms Seif is continuing a sit-in outside the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) – her tiny blue tent dwarfed by the imposing buildings of Westminster.

The 28-year-old human rights defender, who has served three prison sentences in Egypt herself on charges that fellow activists condemned as bogus, says she has been buoyed by solidarity from around the world – with Greta Thunberg and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe among the visitors.

But the family has been deeply disappointed by the British government’s response.

“Egypt and Britain have a very strong relationship,” Ms Seif says. “The UK has helped Egypt a lot in the logistics of COP. But they’re not willing to show any teeth.

“I imagine if they were exerting any pressure, at least they would have consular access to Alaa.”

Last week, 64 MPs and peers in the House of Lords wrote to Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, urging him to ensure that the UK used the opportunity of the summit to secure his release. “Alaa’s situation is so grave that it requires a robust message,” they said.

An FCDO spokesperson told the BBC: “We are working hard to secure Alaa Abdel Fattah’s release and we continue to raise his case at the highest levels of the Egyptian government.

“The foreign secretary most recently raised his case when he met Egyptian Foreign Minister [Sameh] Shoukry at the United Nations General Assembly in September.”

Abdel Fattah was an important figure in a pro-democracy uprising that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Under the authoritarian rule of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power in 2014, he has spent most of the time in prison or police detention. His latest five-year sentence was for allegedly “broadcasting false news” – a charge human rights groups condemned as spurious.

Abdel Fattah received British citizenship last December through his London-born mother.

Human rights groups have said he is one of an estimated 60,000 Egyptian political prisoners and have accused the government in Cairo of trying to “greenwash” its repressive reputation through its hosting of the climate summit.

“Freedom of speech is a prerequisite for climate justice!”, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, said in a tweet.

“In advance of COP27, I am joining the chorus of global voices calling for the immediate release of Alaa Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian activist who has languished in jail for years merely for voicing his opinion.”

The Egyptian government has insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.

Abdel Fattah’s imprisonment is taking a growing toll on his family, including his 10-year old son, Khalid, who is on the autism spectrum and is non-verbal.

“He’s been around his father very little but he really loves him,” Ms. Seif says. “He has photos of him and if anyone says he looks like him, Khalid will go over to the photo and point to him. They have a strong bond.”

She hopes they can rebuild their lives in the safety of Britain, if the hunger strike succeeds.

“I’m very proud of Alaa for fighting like this,” she says. “But I’m scared to lose him. We just want to live a normal life as a family now.” (Source: BBC)

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