Egyptian prosecution authorities announced the release of 15 political activists on 19 March. All were awaiting trial.
The move emboldened human rights organisations to ask for further releases.
On 26 March seven human rights organisations issued a statement saying the 19 March decision was a step in the right direction and urging the authorities to release more prisoners, “particularly political activists and older people suffering from heart, high blood pressure and respiratory diseases… as a preventive measure to protect inmates from possible coronavirus infection”.
The statement was issued by the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, the Freedom of Thought and Expression Institute, the Freedom Initiative, the Beladi Centre for Rights and Freedoms and the Committee for Justice in Egypt.
“There are large numbers of prisoners, including journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists languishing in custody pending trial,” said the statement. “As long as prosecution authorities know their home addresses and they pose no threat to security they should be released.”
The statement also called upon prosecution authorities to “release prisoners, particularly those over 60, with cancer and heart and respiratory diseases, pregnant prisoners and women jailed for failing to pay debts”.
The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) and the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) have also called for the release prisoners of long-term detainees with chronic disease.
“The step should be part of the state efforts to minimise the impact of a coronavirus outbreak,” said ECRF.
They asked the Interior Ministry to improve health conditions in prisons and review its ban on prison visits.
The Interior Ministry’s media centre issued a statement this week announcing it has sterilised all prison cells and police stations and, following Health Ministry instruction, had banned prison visits to protect inmates from virus infection.
“Egyptian prisons are often overcrowded making them fertile ground for any coronavirus outbreak. The best option now would be for prosecution authorities to release prisoners in detention pending trial, as Iran, the US and Bahrain have done,” said a statement issued by the 25-30 group of opposition MPs.
Haitham Al-Hariri, a prominent member of the 25-30 group, said the prosecution’s decision on 19 March had fuelled “hopes that more political prisoners will be released”.
Cairo University professor Hassan Nafaa, regime critic Hazem Abdel-Azim, and leading member of the Dostour Party Shadi El-Ghazali Harb were among the 15 prisoners released on 19 March. They were awaiting trial on charges of using social media to spread rumours, broadcasting false statements and news, and membership of an outlawed group.
Nafaa tweeted on 29 March urging the release of Khaled Dawoud, Hazem Hosni, Ziad Al-Oleimi, Hossam Moanes, Hisham Fouad and Alaa Magdi. “My freedom will be complete only after they too are out of detention,” he wrote.
Al-Ahram Weekly journalist Khaled Dawoud was arrested on 24 September. Along with Nafaa, social media activist Israa Abdel-Fattah, lawyer Mahinour El-Masry, activists Sulafa Magdi, Hossam El-Sayed and Mohamed Salah, and journalist Ahmed Shaker he is a defendant in case 488/2019. Hassan Nafaa, also released last week, is a co-defendant.
The Arab Network for Human Rights Information has reported that the Supreme State Security Prosecution decided 25 March to postpone a decision on the renewal of detention orders in case 488/2019. Nafaa said in his tweet that he hopes it is just a matter of time before his fellow inmates are released.
According to Daarb.com, the online mouthpiece of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, Alaa Al-Khayam, head of the Dostour Party, wrote to Prosecutor-General Hamada Al-Sawi on 26 March asking that political activists be released given the danger of coronavirus infection. “I call upon your excellency to release all prisoners in political cases who are currently in custody pending trial and are ready to give an undertaking to be available whenever the prosecution wants to question them,” Al-Khayam is reported to have written.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly