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Alaa Abd el-Fattah: Celebrities demand British-Egyptian writer's release

Judi Dench and Riz Ahmed among public figures urging US and UK to help secure release of British-Egyptian prisoner
British actor Judi Dench was among celebrities who called on the UK government to release Alaa Abd el-Fattah (AFP/file photo)
By Rayhan Uddin in London

More than 1,000 people, including dozens of celebrities, have urged UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and her US counterpart Antony Blinken to use their "diplomatic power" and help secure the release of Egyptian-British political prisoner, Alaa Abd el-Fattah.

Actors Judi Dench; Carey Mulligan; Bill Nighy; Mark Ruffalo; Riz Ahmed; and Olivia Colman were among the celebrities to sign a letter calling on the two countries to "unequivocally condemn" the 40-year-old's prolonged detention in Egypt

'A whole host of names who are the pillars of our cultural landscape around the world have signed this letter in support of Alaa,'

- Khalid Abdalla, actor 

Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian-British actor who will play Dodi al-Fayed in the upcoming season of Netflix's The Crown, launched the letter at a press conference at the UK's parliament on Tuesday. 

"A whole host of names who are the pillars of our cultural landscape around the world have signed this letter in support of Alaa," he told Middle East Eye during the event. 

“[They are] demanding his freedom and asking Liz Truss to do something about it. So far Liz Truss has done nothing.”

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Abd el-Fattah has spent eight out of the last 10 years in jail on a range of charges. 

The 40-year-old, who became a British citizen in April, is widely regarded as one of the most prominent youth figures in Egypt’s pro-democracy movement.

While in jail, in December 2021, he was sentenced to five years in prison by an emergency state security court on charges of spreading “false news”, in a trial widely condemned by human rights defenders. The evidence used against him was a retweet.

Among other high-profile figures to sign the letter was US activist Angela Davis; Nigerian poet Ben Okri; British film directors Steve McQueen and Mike Leigh; and Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.

"We call upon you to use all diplomatic power to leverage the importance of your strategic relationships with Egypt to secure [Abd el-Fattah's] immediate release," the co-signed letter urged Truss and Blinken.

'I fear Alaa could die'

The British Egyptian started a hunger strike on 2 April, protesting against Cairo's refusal to allow him access to the UK embassy and provide other basic rights. 

“Imagine… you are in prison abroad for sharing a Facebook post, given five years in prison, and the foreign secretary of your country hasn’t said a word months later,” said Abdalla, who has known Abd el-Fattah for over 25 years. “Imagine what precedent that sets for other British citizens.” 

sanaa seif uk parliament
Alaa Abd el-Fattah's sister Sanaa Seif speaks at press conference for British citizens arbitrarily detained abroad, in UK Parliament, on 14 June 2022 (MEE)

Sanaa Seif, Abd el-Fattah’s sister, said that it was "heartwarming" to see the level of international solidarity with her brother’s case. 

"I hope this letter will trigger more interest with the FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office] so we can meet with Liz Truss," Seif told MEE. 

To date, the foreign secretary has not met with the British detainee's family. 

Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK’s minister of state for North Africa, raised the case with the Egyptian ambassador to London last month. 

Seif said that the UK government was "not acting with the right urgency given Alaa’s condition." 

"We hope that by campaigning and by talking about it publicly they will pay more attention."

She added that while she was "hopeful" when she had started the campaign for her brother’s release, she was now starting to lose hope. 

"I fear that Alaa could actually die in prison because we don’t get enough response from the British government. It worries me."

Relatives of UK detainees speak out 

Earlier this week, Abd el-Fattah's sister, Mona, visited him for 20 minutes in Wadi el-Natrun prison, stating that he had lost a lot of weight following 73 days of hunger strike. 

The press conference in London heard from the families of British nationals arbitrarily detained around the world. 

Alaa Abd el-Fattah 'would accept Egyptian citizenship being revoked for freedom'
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Among those to speak were Leila Fitton, the daughter of James Fitton, a British man who was sentenced last week to 15 years in prison in Iraq over accusations of involvement in smuggling antiquities.

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of the recently-released British-Iranian Nazanin Zagari-Ratcliffe, also contributed, as well as a friend of Peter Jouvenal, an ex-BBC journalist arbitrarily detained without charges in Afghanistan. 

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary and member of parliament for Abd el-Fattah’s sister Mona, called on Truss to “meet with my constituents”.

"There's a common theme that runs through these cases as I met with families," Lammy said. "It is [they are told] to stay quiet. And… once they've gone public, they start to see action."

Several of the families of British detainees said that they were told by the FCDO to not go public with their cases - but found that they were left with little alternative due to inaction. 

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