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Egypt prisoner release: Who are they and who's still in jail?

MEE takes a closer look at those freed and the calls to release those still in prison
(L to R) Israa Abdelfattah, Gamaal el-Gamal and Mahienour el-Masry were among the activists released in Egypt on Sunday (social media)

Egypt released a number of prisoners on Sunday evening, in the run-up to the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha.

Prison releases ahead of Eid are typical in many countries in the Middle East. However, despite the releases being met with jubilation, many still remain behind bars in Egypt.

Rights groups estimate that around 60,000 political prisoners are currently held in jails in the country.

Concerns have been raised about the conditions of prisons, including overcrowding and torture. 

Middle East Eye takes a look at some of the prominent journalists and activists that have been released, as well as the calls for the release of other prisoners.

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Israa Abdelfattah 

Israa Abdelfattah is one of the most prominent journalists known for her activism during the 2011 revolution in Egypt. According to her lawyer, Khaled Ali, she was freed after nearly 22 months in pre-trial detention. Under Egyptian law, pre-trial detention can be extended for up to two years.

In 2008, Abdelfattah created an "April 6" Facebook page in support of striking workers and to call for political reforms, at the start of the mobilisation of mass protests that would lead to the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak three years later.

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Political activist Israa Abdelfattah in her office in Cairo in 2011 (AFP)

Abdelfattah, who was nominated for a Nobel prize, was arrested in October 2019 on charges of "spreading false news" and "collaborating with a terrorist group".

Her detention sparked international condemnation, with the United States calling it "scandalous".

Abdelfattah also previously told prosecutors that she was tortured and beaten during her arrest in Cairo. She said that she had her sweatshirt stripped off her which was used to choke her, and that she was hung with her handcuffed hands above her for eight hours. 

Online, many activists and friends of Abdelfattah shared photos of her, congratulating her on her release. 

Mahienour el-Masry 

Mahienour el-Masry, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, was released on Sunday evening after being held in pre-trial detention at al-Qanater women’s prison in the Menoufia governorate. 

Her sister, Maysoon el-Masry, announced the news on her Facebook page.

Masry was arrested in the coastal city of Alexandria in 2019, where she was put into a minivan and questioned. 

She was later charged with "aiding a terrorist group in achieving its goals" and "spreading false news".

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Mahienour el-Masry was arrested in the coastal city of Alexandria during protests (Screengrab/social media)

At the time, small pockets of anti-government protests had broken out in Egypt, after former army contractor and whistleblower Mohamed Ali revealed corruption within President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government, calling for protests to remove him from power. 

Masry had played a leading role in defending women’s rights, workers’ rights and refugees, as well as campaigning for the right to freedom of assembly. 

Amnesty International had long called for her release, calling the charges against her ‘unfounded’.

Mostafa al-Asar 

Mostafa al-Asar, a journalist, was held in pre-trial detention since 2018, where he was charged with participating and aiding terrorist groups and spreading false information through his online platform. 

Asar worked for the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper.

Last year, Human Rights Watch condemned Egypt’s system of issuing pre-trial detentions, with the rights group saying it was used abusively. 

According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, prosecutors "recycled" Asar’s detention by adding him to a new case after authorities ordered his release. Lawyers and critics believe this tactic is increasingly used to avoid releasing people who surpass the two year limit in pre-trial detention. 

Moataz Wadnan 

Moataz Wadnan, a journalist, was arrested in February 2018 after interviewing the former top corruption official Hisham Genena, who was working to elect a former military chief-of-staff in an apparent challenge to Sisi in elections that year. 

Genena also stated that corruption in the country had caused losses in excess of 600bn Egyptian pounds (roughly $38bn) in 2015.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in Genena’s interview with Wadnan, he revealed that documents and evidence were available that would change the course of politically motivated trials and reveal those responsible for the major crises in Egypt since the 2011 uprising.

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Moataz Wadnan was arrested in 2018 and was a prominent journalist for a number of outlets (Screengrab/social media)

According to local media, Wadnan was held for over 40 months, almost double the legal limit of 24-months on pre-trial detention. 

Wadnan was a reporter for HuffPost Arabi, and was charged with joining a banned group and spreading false news. Last year, prosecutors added charges of inciting terrorist crimes from inside prison. 

After Wadnan was imprisoned in 2018, his lawyer, Amr Mohamed, told local media that Wadnan’s health had deteriorated and that he had lost weight after going on hunger strike to protest against the lack of access to visitors and medical treatment at the notorious Scorpion prison.

Abdel Nasser Ismail 

Abdel Nasser Ismail is a politician and the leader of the Popular Alliance Party. He was held for around two years in pre-trial detention, according to his brother, Abdel Mawla Ismail. 

Ismail was arrested in September 2019, in a crackdown on protesters and activists. He was charged with spreading false news and joining a terrorist organisation. 

Gamaal el-Gamal 

Gamaal al-Gamal, a freelance columnist, contributed to local news websites. He was arrested in March this year at Cairo International Airport upon his arrival from Turkey, where he had lived since 2017.

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Gamaal el-Gamal, an Egyptian journalist and columnist (Social media)

Gamal was held in Cairo’s Tora prison before he was released on Sunday evening. 

In recent years, Gamal has been known to be a Sisi critic, despite the journalist's initial support for his coup in 2013.

In 2017, he travelled to Turkey, known to be a safe haven for the Egyptian opposition, and presented a TV programme on the opposition Al-Sharq channel for nearly two years. But he then stopped and thereafter only focused on writing posts on his Facebook page. 

According to the CPJ, the state prosecutor’s office charged Gamal with spreading false news, joining a terrorist organisation and inciting public opinion against state institutions.

Gamal contributed to outlets such as Al-Masry al-Youm, Al-Karama and Al-Tahrir, as well as Arabi21. Some of his work was critical of the Egyptian government and Sisi’s policies. 

Amr Magdi, Egypt researcher at Human Rights Watch, described Gamal’s detention as “shocking but not unexpected”.

"The incident just confirms that the fate of many dissidents abroad if they return home is to be abducted in the airport, forcibly disappeared and later interrogated by prosecution officials whose only job is apparently reduced to rubber-stamping whatever security agencies claim without any evidence,” he told MEE.

Campaign for releases 

Despite the releases, journalists, human rights campaigners and activists have reiterated their calls for the release of other prisoners.

Amr Magdi said that the release of prisoners was the response of the Egyptian government in the face of growing pressure. 

“These releases mostly reflect Sisi’s government seeking new ‘manoeuvres’ in the face of growing domestic and international pressure. But arrests never stopped. Yesterday, former al-Ahram editor-in-chief Abdelnasser Salama was arrested for calling Sisi to step down,” he said in a tweet.

Last week, the United States spoke of its "concern" over Egypt's targeting of rights campaigners after another prominent activist was indicted, saying the issue of human rights was a factor in arms sales to Washington's ally.

"The United States is concerned by continued detentions, indictments and harassment of Egyptian civil society leaders, academics and journalists, including the indictment of director-general of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Hossam Bahgat," State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in a news conference on Wednesday. 

US President Joe Biden vowed as a presidential candidate in 2020 that there would be no more "blank cheques" for Sisi, who had formed a close alliance with Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump.

Since Sisi seized power in 2013, hundreds of journalists, activists, lawyers and intellectuals have been arrested.

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