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Constitutional rights of detainees 'go unrecognised', says campaigner

Samia Jaheen talks to Ahram Online about a new campaign that is trying to free 'political detainees'

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 15 Mar 2014
Egypt
A still from an interview with Samia Jaheen on private satellite station CBC.
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Rights activist Samia Jaheen had a few good days recently, celebrating the release of two activists, Khaled El-Sayed and Nagy Kamel, whose arrest two months ago had started the campaign “Freedom for the Brave.”

Along with other members of this campaign, Jaheen is hard at work to try to identify the names and locations of those who have been arrested since what she describes as “the start of a rise in political detention” on 25 January, the third anniversary of the 2011 revolution.

The campaigner puts the figure of those stopped and detained by the security forces for “unclear reasons, or for no reason at all” in the past few months at around 20,000. Some have been held incommunicado or in “hazardous detention places”, she says.

In her early 30s, Jaheen is also an artist and singer whose work with a youth band, Iskanderlah, has commemorated the wide public anger on the road to the 25 January Revolution and the rejoice of political victory of peaceful demonstrations.

Jaheen is a graduate of the school of arts at Cairo University and she is also the daughter of Egypt's renowned and ever celebrated colloquial poet Salah Jaheen whose name is best associated with the national songs that commemorated many of the nation's historic moments including the 1952 Revolution, the construction of the High Dam under the rule  of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the 1967 defeat, and the October War.

Jaheen told Ahram Online that she was happy about the recent release of activists El-Sayed and Kamel, describing the outcome as a “continued even if faltering sense of rejection of unfairness”.

But Jaheen is not losing sight of the battle she faces.

“The road is still very long and very hard until we manage to release all those who have been arrested since 25 January,” she said.

“The most daunting challenge at this moment, I think, is to have a full list of those held in detention because of their political activism; our campaign does not have such a list and neither do the other campaigns who work in parallel or in coordination with Freedom for the Brave,” she added.

Jaheen is adamant, like many other human rights activists, that thousands of those arrested in recent months have been detained without adequate legal justification.

“The fact of the matter is that people get arrested while having tea at a café or while strolling in the street for no clear reason -- sometimes because they happen to carry in their bag posters opposed to the ruling transitional regime, sometimes because they happen to be bearded, and sometimes simply because a certain police officer decided to arrest them. So people don’t really have to be taking part in a demonstration or a sit-in to get arrested,” she said.

Networking with campaigns, activists and groups, Freedom for the Brave has been trying to put the pieces together “but we still don’t know the exact figures or the names of those arrested, and we are not expecting the police to be forthcoming,” she explains.

“We know of some, and the wider public could recognise the names of some of the more prominent activists, but the fact of the matter is that there are endless activists whose name might not ring a bell for most people but who are held in horrifying conditions,” she said.

The campaign also faces challenges finding enough volunteer lawyers to take on the volume of the cases.

“Only a couple of weeks ago we went to Tanta to try to help some detainees and when we called the lawyer who usually volunteers with such cases we realised that he too had been detained,” she said.

Like other pro-revolution Egyptians, Jaheen sees the upsurge in what she describes as political detention as a serious setback to the cause of freedom that was championed during the 2011 revolution.

“Since [the protests leading to the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi on] 30 June we have seen a shocking rise in political detention and a shocking return to violation of basic legal and human rights of the detainees,” she said.

Jaheen argues that violations of such rights -- which initially provoked the protests in 2011 -- are much worse now under the loose banner of “the war on terror” that the interim authorities are waging.

Unlike in the days of Khaled Said, the Alexandrian young man whose death at the hands of the police spurred protests in the run-up to the 2011 revolution, Jaheen believes public sympathy is less forthcoming at present.

“People are not giving attention to these arrests and at times they confuse the arrest of activists with the so called ‘war on terror’ -- and the media is to be held responsible in this respect,” she argues.

But the activist has not lost faith. “Public sympathy is still there, even if it is not as forceful. It is because we are not giving up that the authorities actually bowed to pressure and released Khaled El-Sayed and Nagy Kamil,” she said.

“The courage of those arrested in sharing the horrifying testimonies of violations, without bowing to any sense of humiliation” was another key factor in generating sympathy, she believes.

According to Jaheen, while all those detained face tough challenges, the Islamist detainees may have the short end of the stick, given that it is they who receive the least public sympathy.

Freedom for the Brave, she insists, does not discriminate based on political affiliation of the detainees it works with. “We try to help anyone we know of, with no hesitation,” Jaheen said.

The activist argues that her work suggests “a great deal if not a complete lack of respect for the newly passed constitution, which has a full chapter on rights and freedoms -- it gets zero recognition or less” from the law enforcement bodies.

Reversing the rise of violations, Jaheen is convinced, “is going to happen -- even if later rather than sooner. So many things have gone wrong since the 25 January Revolution; we need to think of how to fix these mistakes and I am sure we will be back on track at some point,” she said.

“But meanwhile we will not be silent, and we will continue to demand freedom for the good guys."

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