LONDON (AP) — A leading Egyptian pro-democracy activist who has been imprisoned for more than 3 1/2 years has obtained a British passport, his family announced Monday. The move is likely meant to pressure Egyptian authorities to release him.
Alaa Abdel-Fattah, an outspoken dissident, rose to prominence with the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East and in Egypt toppled long-time President Hosni Mubarak. The 40-year old activist spent most of the past decade behind bars and his detention has become a symbol of Egypt’s return to autocratic rule.
He was first sentenced in 2014 after being convicted of taking part in an unauthorized protest and allegedly assaulting a police officer. He was released in 2019 after serving a five-year term but was rearrested later that year in a crackdown that followed rare anti-government protests.
In December, Abdel-Fattah was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of spreading false news. Abdel-Fattah separately faces charges of misusing social medial and joining a terrorist group — a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities declared a terrorist organization in 2013.
Last year, Abdel-Fattah’s family and his Egyptian lawyers accused prison authorities in Cairo’s Tora Prison of torturing him and denying him basic legal rights. They also called for prosecutors to investigate the claims.
Abdel-Fattah’s family said in a statement Monday that he gained British citizenship through his mother, Laila Soueif, a math professor at Cairo University who was born in London. The family said they sought a British passport for Abdel-Fattah as a way out of his “impossible ordeal.”
The family called for an investigation into alleged rights violations against Abdel-Fattah since his arrest in September 2019. Also, they requested that he be allowed to communicate with the family lawyers in the United Kingdom and that he be allowed consular visits in prison.
Abdel-Fattah began a hunger strike earlier this month to protest alleged violations against him and other detainees in the Tora prison complex, his family said.
“This is a British citizen detained unlawfully, in appalling conditions, simply for exercising his basic rights to peaceful expression and association,” Daniel Furner, one of the family lawyers, told The Associated Press.
The U.K. Foreign Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Obtaining a Western passport could be a way for Abdel-Fattah to be freed. A handful of activists with dual nationality were forced to relinquish their Egyptian citizenship in recent years as a condition for their release, a legal maneuver that allows authorities to deport foreigners accused of crimes.
The government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, a U.S. ally with deep economic ties to European countries, has been relentlessly silencing dissenters and clamping down on independent organizations for years with arrests and restrictions. Many of the top activists involved in the 2011 uprising are now in prison, most under a draconian law passed in 2013 effectively banning all street protests.
Abdel-Fattah has been detained several times before under different governments for lobbying for civil rights on social media and in public. An influential blogger, he hails from a family of political activists, lawyers and writers. His late father was one of Egypt’s most tireless rights lawyers. His sisters — also British citizens — are also political activists and his aunt is the award-winning novelist Ahdaf Soueif.
Separately, the death of a well-known economics researcher who had disappeared two months ago was met with anger among activists and academics Monday.
Ayman Hadhoud was pronounced dead in the government-run Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital in Cairo, the Interior Ministry said in a statement Sunday. The circumstances surrounding his death were vague.
The ministry said in a terse statement that Hadhoud was detained Feb. 6 for allegedly attempting to break into an apartment in the upscale Zamalek district of Cairo and exhibited “irresponsible behavior.”
The ministry, which oversees the police, said Hadhoud, 48, was sent to the hospital. It did not elaborate further.
Local media reported that Hadhoud, a critic of government economic policies, had been detained early in February. His brother, Omar, was quoted as saying that a police officer told him that he was detained by the National Security Agency.
Hadhoud’s family knew unofficially that Hadhoud was in the hospital in eastern Cairo a few days after he was forcefully disappeared, the brother said. A death certificate released Monday said Hadhoud died March 5 in Abbasiya.
Activists and academics have taken to social media to denounce Hadhoud’s death and many have called for an investigation. Prosecutors ordered a forensic autopsy of his body to determine the cause of death.
The government-appointed National Council for Human Rights issued a statement on Hadhoud’s mysterious death, urging prosecutors to address all concerns raised on his alleged forced disappearance.
Torture and abuse by police are not unusual in Egypt. In 2016, Giulio Regeni, an Italian doctoral student, was found dead the side of a Cairo road with his body had been brutalized, raising suspicion of police involvement. Italy accused police officers of killing him, a charge that Egypt denied.