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Democrats urge Egypt's Sisi to free dissidents before jail terms 'become death sentences'

More than 50 lawmakers issued a letter to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi urging him to release prisoners of conscience during the coronavirus pandemic
An Egyptian police officer at the entrance of the Tora prison in the Egyptian capital Cairo on 11 February (AFP/File photo)

More than 50 US Democratic lawmakers have urged Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to release human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and other prisoners of conscience "before their unjust imprisonments become death sentences in the face of massive Covid outbreaks". 

In a letter sent on Monday, the 55 politicians, led by Representatives Ro Khanna, Jim McGovern and Senator Sherrod Brown, called on Sisi to release those "unjustly detained for exercising their fundamental human rights".

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two former candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, also signed the letter. 

The legislators' warning to Sisi comes two weeks before the US elections in November. President Donald Trump, who has formed a close alliance with Sisi, is trailing in the polls to Democrat Joe Biden.

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Receiving an annual amount from the US of around $1.3bn, Egypt is one of the largest recipients of US aid. The Trump administration, as well as Congress, has in the past resisted calls for imposing conditions on the funds in order to push Cairo to improve its human rights record.

But in the letter, lawmakers warned Sisi that respect for human rights was "essential to the US-Egyptian partnership". 

"The wrongful imprisonment of prisoners of conscience and other gross violations of human rights fundamentally undermine that partnership and those relations," the legislators said.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called for the release of political prisoners in Egypt and called the country's crackdown on dissent "one of the worst in recent history".

Human rights groups estimate that there are around 60,000 political detainees in Egypt, including journalists, bloggers, political dissidents, lawyers and activists.

'A Democratic administration will not be silent'

In their letter, the lawmakers raised the cases of several activists including Sanaa Seif, who was abducted outside the prosecutor-general's office in Cairo in June.

Her lawyers later said she was charged with "spreading false rumors, inciting to terrorist crimes" and "misuse of social media". 

Her brother, Alaa Abdel Fattah, was imprisoned in September 2019 after rare, small-scale protests, and was a prominent figure in the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprising.

At least two prisoners have died in custody this year including Mustafa Kassem, a US citizen who was rounded up in a sweeping 2013 crackdown and had gone on a hunger strike.

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"Even in the middle of a global pandemic, President Sisi continues to lock up prisoners in notoriously overcrowded, dangerous prisons," Khanna said in joint a statement accompanying the letter on Monday.

"President Sisi must release human rights activists, lawyers and other prisoners of conscience before they face a Covid-19 death sentence behind bars," he said.

On Saturday, a Giza criminal court ordered the release of satirist and video blogger Shady Abu Zaid with probationary measures. 

Abu Zaid was arrested in May 2018 after being charged with "membership of a banned group" and "disseminating false news".

Celine Lebrun, a French national whose activist husband Ramy Shaath remains in detention where he is battling various ailments, said the letter was especially significant in mobilising members of Congress days ahead of the US election.

The letter "also sends a powerful message to the Egyptian government that a Democratic administration and Congress will not be silent about the issue of human rights and political prisoners in Egypt", she said.

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