The state security prosecution decided on 19 March to release 15 members of a mix of leftist and liberal political parties pending trial.
Sources said the release comes in response to the coronavirus. Khaled Ali, a lawyer defending political prisoners, said the move to release the activities was taken amid fears that inmates’ safety could be jeopardised by a possible coronavirus infection.
By Monday, Egypt’s death toll from the coronavirus was 19 and 366 infected.
Those released include political analyst and Cairo University professor Hassan Nafaa, regime critic Hazem Abdel-Azim, and a leading member of the liberal-oriented Dostour Party, Shadi Al-Ghazali Harb.
They are facing trial on charges of spreading false news, misusing social media to spread rumours, broadcasting false statements and news, and joining an outlawed group.
Most were arrested following minor protests on 20 September 2019.
The prosecution said the defendants sought to serve the objectives of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood whose satellite television channels broadcasting from Qatar and Turkey were heavily involved in inciting citizens to protest on what they called the Friday of Salvation on 27 September.
Activists Abdel-Azim and Harb were, however, arrested in May 2018 on charges of spreading false news, joining an outlawed organisation and inciting the overthrow of the regime.
Those released also includes seven members of the Dostour Party —Ahmed Fadel, Ahmed Al-Rassam, Hilal Samir, Ramadan Ragab, Amir Eissa, Khaled Sweida, and Wael Abdel-Hafez.
Founded by Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize laureate and diplomat Mohamed Al-Baradei in 2012, the Dostour Party’s objectives are mainly to promote the ideals of the 2011 January Revolution. Its activities, however, came to a standstill after internal rifts between party leaders.
Two members of the opposition Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party were also freed: Ahmed Al-Sakka and Amr Hasouba. The party was founded in April 2011 by a number of liberal and socialist activists calling for social justice and political freedoms.
The list comprises two members of two leftist political parties: Abdel-Aziz Al-Husseini, deputy chairman of the Nasserist Karama Party, and Abeer Al-Safti, a member of the Bread and Freedom Party.
Karim Abbas, a political activist and blogger, was the only independent defendant on the list.
Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, a prominent journalist and political analyst, said in an Al-Ahram column on 21 March that the move was a “very good one”. “I hope that more political activists will be released in the coming period so that malicious human rights organisations which target Egypt do not use this issue as a weapon in their war against the regime,” Harb said.
Yehia Qalash, former chairman of the Press Syndicate, wrote on his Facebook account on 23 March, “we have high hopes that all defendants in custody or arrested pending investigation be released as soon as possible. This step is necessary to deter any expected spread of the coronavirus among prison inmates,” Qalash said.
Following his release, political science professor Hassan Nafaa tweeted on 22 March that he hoped other detained political activists, particularly Khaled Dawoud, an Al-Ahram Weekly journalist and former head of Al-Dostour Party, are also released as soon as possible. “I spent six months in prison with colleagues Hazem Hosni and Khaled Dawoud and I hope they will be released as soon as possible,” Nafaa said, adding: “let me also warmly thank all police officers who treated me well during my six months in prison.”
Haitham Al-Hariri, a leading member of the leftist 25-30 group in parliament, said in a statement that “the prosecution’s decision to free 15 political activists is a very progressive step, but we need more steps in the coming stage so that all political detainees be released from prison.”
In October last year, the prosecution-general announced the release of 500 detainees who were arrested in the wake of anti-government protests on 20 September 2019. The announcement followed the release of 200 other detainees a week earlier in September.
The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) said in a statement on 16 March that prosecution authorities should take a number of precautionary measures that can prevent any infection with the coronavirus among the prison population. “The prosecution should move quickly to release all those who are in custody pending investigation, particularly those who suffer from heart and chronic problems,” EHOR said, adding that “the Interior Ministry should also be keen on disinfecting prison cells as those which are overcrowded could lead to the spread of the virus.”
On 18 March the prosecution also released four activists who protested for the release of a number of detainees to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among prisoners.
They include writer Ahdaf Soueif, rights activists Laila Soueif and Mona Seif, and political science professor Rabab Al-Mahdi who were arrested while protesting in front of the cabinet and parliament buildings in downtown Cairo.
They were demanding the release of political prisoners over fears of a coronavirus outbreak in Egyptian prisons. Lawyer Mohamed Abdel-Aziz said the women were arrested for organising an illegal protest. Downtown Cairo’s Qasr Al-Nil prosecution ordered they be released after paying LE5,000 in bail each, Abdel-Aziz said.
Seif said in a Facebook video that the protest aimed to exert pressure on prosecution authorities to release prisoners, including her family members placed in custody, pending investigation into a number of charges.
Seif is the sister of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a political activist who was arrested in 2013 for staging an illegal protest in front of the Shura Council.
An informed legal source said police officers guarding the cabinet building asked the four women to leave and stop taking videos, warning that it violated the protest law. “They did not receive a prior licence to protest and police officers asked them to leave, but they refused, and as a result they were taken to the nearby Qasr Al-Nil police station to be questioned,” the source said.
A security source told reporters on 18 March that security apparatuses observed that there was coordination among some radical leftist politicians and leading members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to start a campaign aimed at releasing the group’s prisoners under the claim that there could be an outbreak of the coronavirus among them. “They used AlJazeera TV and other Brotherhood media outlets to propagate this campaign,” said the source, adding that “the family of political prisoner Alaa Abdel-Fattah and the head of a political party are trying to serve this campaign.”
Abdel-Fattah was released from prison in March 2019 after serving a five-year prison term. He, however, was arrested again last September on charges of spreading false news and joining a terrorist group.
Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry decided on 19 March to suspend prison visits nationwide until the end of March.
“The decision aims to safeguard general health and protect inmates in light of the Egyptian government’s decisions and the Health Ministry’s recommendations to halt large gatherings and events as a preventive measure to combat the spread of the coronavirus,” a statement said.
The Interior Ministry initially halted prison visits on 10 March over coronavirus concerns.
The decision would be in effect immediately and run through 31 March, the cabinet said in a statement.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly