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Egypt: Calls to release Safwan Thabet as wife fights for life

Founders of Egypt's largest dairy production company in prison after it refused to hand over shares to military
Bahira Elshawi, wife of Safwan Thabet, speaking at an event for a charity supporting female cancer patients in Cairo (Twitter)

The family of the detained Egyptian businessman Safwan Thabet has renewed calls for his release as his wife fights for her life at a Cairo hospital. 

Amnesty International has said Safwan Thabet and his son Seif Thabet, the owners of the Juhayna dairy company, are held in solitary confinement at Cairo's notorious Scorpion Prison in conditions that amount to torture due to their refusal to give up their shares in the firm to a military-owned business. 

Safwan Thabet, 75, is the founder, former CEO, and majority shareholder of Juhayna, Egypt’s largest dairy and juice company. He was detained in December 2020, and his son Seif was arrested two months later on charges of “funding terrorism, undermining the national economy and joining an unlawful organisation”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the two have been jailed in violation of due process rights without any evidence to support the charges against them.

Sources told HRW that Seif Thabet’s arrest came after the authorities failed attempt to get the family to merge their company with a military-owned dairy production company.

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Thabet junior refused to give up the family’s shares to a “sovereign entity” - which security agencies did not name - without any compensation, the rights group said.

After Safwan Thabet’s arrest, Saudi Arabian shareholder Mohamed la-Deghim was elected as the company’s CEO. 

While the family initially refrained from campaigning for the two men’s release, Safwan Thabet’s wife, Bahira Elshawi, made an emotional plea to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last year asking for the release of her husband and son over their abusive detention conditions.

After her video went viral, Elshawi was summoned by security services and accused of “spreading false news” and “joining a terrorist group”.

On Sunday, Elshawi’s daughter Mariam Thabet warned her mother’s health has deteriorated in hospital, where she is receiving chemotherapy and also struggling with a Covid infection.

She said the family has sent a request to the public prosecutor asking for her father and brother to be released to see their mother, but that all requests have been ignored. 

The reports of Elshawi’s poor health have prompted solidarity messages from activists, including Mona Seif and Gameela Ismael, who called for the Thabets’ release for “humanitarian reasons”.

“Believe me, something in our hearts changes in an irreversible way when you go through such an event," wrote Mona Seif, whose activist brother Alaa Abdel Fattah is also detained in a case denounced as politically motivated. 

"Someone accompany Thabet's family and reunite them and do not deprive them of staying together at this difficult time. Please. This is a degree of injustice and evil that is beyond the capacity of anyone.”

Sisi's government, which came to power following a 2013 military coup, has been accused of overseeing the worst human rights crisis in Egypt's modern history. Over 60,000 political prisoners are estimated to languish in prison, many of whom have died in custody due to poor detention conditions or medical negligence. 

Sisi denies the country has any political prisoners and has justified his crackdown as part of an alleged "fight against terrorism", but terror accusations have been consistently brought against a range of the president's peaceful critics, as well as powerful businessmen like the Thabets.

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