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Egypt prosecutor orders release of five opposition figures

Those set to be freed, including former diplomat Masoum Marzouk, were detained in August after calling for a referendum on Sisi's government
Former diplomat Masoum Marzouk, who is set to be released (Twitter)

Egypt’s top prosecutor has ordered the release of five prominent opposition figures who have been held since August, lawyers said on Monday.

The five, including former diplomat Masoum Marzouk, were detained after calling for a popular referendum on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government.

Lawyers Khalid Ali and Omar Eid confirmed the decision on Monday, and said their clients may be released "within hours".

According to Ali, Marzouk’s lawyer, two other defendants in the case, Sameh Seoudi and Amr Mohamed, were not included in Monday’s decision.

The ruling has been issued pending further investigation, and the five have had a travel ban placed upon them, according to local media.

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Ahram, a government-owned newspaper, quoted a security source as saying:  "The decision came in response to human rights calls and appeals by families to release the defendants."

Political prisoners

Marzouk, 73, has been detained in solitary confinement since August, when he publicly called for a referendum, the release of political prisoners, the formation of a transitional governing council to replace Sisi, and a ten-year ban on political candidacy for anyone who served in government or parliament over the past decade.

In March, Marzouk's wife wrote an appeal to the public prosecutor, condemning her husband's solitary confinement and warning that he was "dying in prison".

She said Marzouk told her during a prison visit that authorities are intent on releasing him from prison "only to his grave". She said he suffers from severe breathlessness.

The charges brought against him included "aiding a terrorist group to achieve its goals, receiving funding with terrorist intent and participating in a criminal agreement with the purpose of committing a terrorist crime".

The six other opposition activists arrested in August were held on the same charges, and are also set to be released. 

They include economist Raed Salama, geology professor Yahia Qazzaz, political activist Nermin Hassan and archaeologist Abdelfattah el-Banna. The Cairo prosecution froze their assets in September.

The case, named no. 1,305, includes 16 defendants, nine of whom have been tried in absentia.

Mohamed Mahsoub, who served as minister of state for parliamentary affairs under Sisi's deposed predecessor Mohamed Morsi, and one of those tried in absentia, welcomed the news on Twitter:

Translation: "Happy news, yesterday the release of hundreds of prisoners and today the release of the respected [political figures] Masoum Marzouk, Raed Salama, Yehia Qazzaz and others who were arrested on trumped-up charges. I am one of the defendants in this case. I hope thousands of others will be released.... Countries are not built by repression and are not protected by despotism."

Marzouk and his co-defendants have been known for their opposition to the Sisi government. They were among many public figures who opposed the transfer of two Egyptian Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia.

Presidential pardons

Last week, Sisi issued presidential pardons for 560 prisoners, including prominent journalist Abdel Halim Qandil and protesters who demonstrated against the military coup in which Sisi toppled Morsi. The pardon coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. 

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There have been several rounds of prisoner releases under Sisi, often coinciding with public holidays. But Sisi's government has also been notorious for its sweeping arrests, many of them for political activity.

Amnesty International raised fears of another potential crackdown on Friday after reporting that authorities arrested labour lawyer Haytham Mohamdeen and activist Mostafa Maher last week.

"These latest arrests have reignited a climate of fear amongst independent activists and human rights organisations about a renewed assault by the Egyptian authorities on the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," said Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.

Amnesty has called for their immediate release.

Human rights groups have documented at least 60,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails since Sisi came to power in 2013. Sisi denies that Egypt has any political prisoners.

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