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Egypt's foreign inmates on hunger strike, plead for pardon

Group of 20, mostly Nigerian, foreign jail inmates issue desperate plea for release after more than decade languishing in Egypt's penal system

Salma Shukrallah , Wednesday 19 Sep 2012
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Twenty non-Egyptian prisoners in Cairo's Qanater Prison have been a hunger strike for a few days in hopes of raising awareness – official and public – about their respective cases.

In a statement signed by "foreign prisoners," the group – some members of which have spent as many as 20 years in jail – pleaded for their release.

"We promise to God – and to you – to be good and not go back to doing wrong," they collectively asserted. "We pose no threat to society."

While most of the prisoners are Nigerians who, according to lawyer Fathallah Soliman, have been jailed for drug trafficking offenses, the group also includes Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Turkish and Sudanese nationals.

Soliman, who has taken up the cases of many foreigners arrested in Egypt for drug trafficking, told Ahram Online that the usual sentence in such cases was life in prison.

While the law used to permit those who had spent between 18 and 20 years to be released for "good behaviour," Soliman explained that this was no longer the case after a 1989 amendment to the law excluding those arrested for drug smuggling.

"How come they release murderers and rapists for good behaviour and not these men?" asked Soliman, noting that he had filed a number of suits against the law. He believes that the law is unconstitutional based on the principle – enshrined in Egypt's national charter – of "equal treatment."

"Some of them are arrested at a very young age," Soliman added. "Some of them get involved [in drug trafficking] without knowing it, as in cases when someone is asked to transport a bag without knowledge of its content."

As it currently stands, the only way prisoners can be released is if they obtain a pardon from the president of the republic.

Following last year's revolution, said Soliman, Hussein Tantawi, former head of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and de facto president at the time, issued several pardons to long-time inmates, but these did not include any foreign prisoners.

"Now we're beseeching Egypt's new president to pardon these men," said Soliman.

He went on to argue that the justice ministry could at least agree to deport the prisoners back to their respective home countries. But according to the law, Soliman pointed out, the only way prisoners can be transferred back home is if they pay a hefty fine, which most cannot afford.

"This means that if a prisoner is poor he cannot be transferred back to his country, where at least his family can visit him in jail," he said.

The only way these prisoners can be transferred home without paying a fine is for the justice ministry to officially acknowledge documents showing that the prisoner's respective financial status does not allow for such a penalty.

These appeals, however, are seldom accepted. According to Soliman, none have been green-lighted by the ministry within the last two years.       

While some foreign embassies will intervene to help their citizens languishing in Egyptian prisons, others, according to the lawyer, appear not to care.

When contacted by Ahram Online, an official from the Nigerian embassy refused to comment on the prisoners' ongoing hunger strike.

"We're not responsible for the prisoners, Egyptian prison authorities are," insisted the official.  

The embassy does, however, occasionally send delegates to visit its imprisoned nationals. Inmates' friends, along with humanitarian and Christian organisations, also provide aid, Carlos, a friend of one of the Nigerian prisoners, told Ahram Online.

Carlos does not, however, believe the prisoners' hunger strike will improve the men's unenviable situation.

"I told them the hunger strike was a bad idea," he said. "Prison officials will not care if one or more of these men dies of hunger."

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