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Ahdaf Soueif shines spotlight on human rights at UAE's inaugural Hay festival

Noted author highlighted abuses in host country and Egypt at the first Hay festival in the Arab world
Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif brought up the cases of Egyptian and Emirati political prisoners during her talk at the Hay festival in Abu Dhabi on 26 February (Facebook/@AhdafSoueif)

Renowned Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif has used her appearance at the inaugural Hay festival in Abu Dhabi to speak out against human rights abuses in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

During a conversation with Peter Florence on Wednesday, Soueif told attendees that two Emirati human rights activists could have been in attendance had they not been unjustly jailed.

The novelist, who founded the Palestinian Festival of Literature in 2008, said she wanted to speak about those "who have lost their liberty simply because of their insistence on their right to freedom of expression and their support for the principles of human rights".

Among those jailed in the UAE for exercising their right to free speech is poet and activist Ahmed Mansoor, and jurist Mohammed al-Rukun.

"It's very easy for cultural events to become smokescreens," Soueif said, remembering her own nephew, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is currently in jail in Egypt on charges linked to his human rights activism.

A letter signed by the festival's president Stephen Fry, and more than 40 public figures and organisations castigated Emirati authorities for continuing to incarcerate citizens for expressing their views.

The open letter, signed by organisations such as Amnesty and PEN International prior to the festival, calls on Emirati authorities to free the jailed human rights defenders. It highlights what it calls a discrepancy between the Ministry of Tolerance's support for the festival "in a country that does not tolerate dissenting voices".

"Regrettably, the UAE government devotes more effort to concealing its human rights abuses than to addressing them and invests heavily in the funding and sponsorship of institutions, events and initiatives that are aimed at projecting a favourable image to the outside world," it says.

Soueif, an award-winning novelist, also used her platform to call for the release of Egyptian political prisoners, including her nephew.

The UAE government is a major backer of the government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is accused of holding more than 60,000 political prisoners since he came to power in 2014.

"Lines of empathy are very important, and I know that for the people whom I know in prisons in Egypt it is very important that they are remembered," she said.

"And it's very important that cultural events are not used to paper over the injustices that have meant that they have ended up in prison, but are actually used to highlight their case".