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Egypt, jailed for marrying a woman.

Jessica Albrent contacted me recently and asked for help as her husband was jailed in Egypt for marrying her.

These are Jessica's words and her contact details are at the end of the letter.

Thanks for your time.

Billy Briggs.


As an American expatriate living in many different and sometimes dangerous places, I am constantly reminded of one very important thing: I have choices – real, viable choices. As a woman, I do not have to limit my choices between marriage and ostracism; I have reproductive choices, can make my own decisions regarding my career and education, and I can choose to leave a marriage that simply isn’t working without fear of losing my children or future. And most importantly, I can choose whom I marry.

At 17, I made the choice to live a life of adventures (often misadventures) and it is wonderful! I love the experiences I have had and the people I have met. After a few years though, it becomes stale. Adventures without anyone to share them with are hard: no one understands my fondness for Lahore, or the feeling I get racing across the Egyptian desert on a big black horse named Zorro.  When I lived in Egypt, I became close to an Egyptian family, who introduced me to their cousins. I eventually married one of those cousins, Ahmed Azzam. As Ahmed and I met and got to know each other, it was clear that he was someone with whom I could share my adventures. He is smart, trustworthy, responsible, brave, and loves to travel.  We want the same things, and have similar ideas on how to get there. For once, I met someone whom I could trust with my life. Fairytale, right?

Unfortunately though, Ahmed does not enjoy the same freedoms that I do: Ahmed does not enjoy the freedom of choice. When Ahmed was 17, he joined the Egyptian Air Force, and there many of his choices ceased. Members of the Egyptian military are prohibited from doing many things others in democratic societies take for granted. They may not vote or join a political party. They may not protest or criticize the military or government, even in the privacy of their own homes. They may not insult anyone and they cannot hug or kiss family members while in uniform. They cannot have a Facebook, or any social media account. They cannot travel outside of the country except on official military business, nor are they permitted to study for another degree or obtain certification outside of the military. They are required to stay in the military a minimum of ten years, and can retire only when, and if, the military approves their request for retirement.  Members of the military may not complain of treatment to any human rights groups. They cannot visit an embassy for any reason and are forced to watch or participate in military executions. And if those prohibitions are not restrictive of freedom enough, members of the Egyptian military cannot marry foreign citizens.

Sadly, Ahmed made a choice when he was 17 years old that set the course of his life. When Ahmed was 17, he wanted to marry his girlfriend, he never wanted to leave Egypt, and wanted to be in the Navy.  Most of us make choices as young adults that they would change as they mature in age and responsibility, and most of us are free to make those changes as life circumstances change. When I was 17, I wanted to marry my boyfriend, live in Boston, and read for a living: all of those things have changed for me! People change, and they should. But at 17, Ahmed’s future and freedoms were locked in with that one choice.

Given the lack of options since joining the air force, Ahmed has acted honorably and with good conscience. He was a model officer. In 11 years of service, he was never, ever reprimanded, or even late. He passed every test, received a promotion at every opportunity, and maintained a perfect record. By choosing to be upright and honest, he earned the chance to travel and train with the US military seven times. He excelled in his field, is a senior instructor pilot for the Blackhawk helicopter, and certified by the US Military. Ahmed was a trusted helicopter pilot, in charge of safety issues as his base, and was regularly entrusted to pilot for major leaders.

Like me, Ahmed made his choices, but found that life was still not complete without someone with whom he could share it all. What was the point of planning for a future that was already decided? Why strive to get better and improve your living conditions, only to come home to an empty house? How empty it must be to work with people from all over the world knowing that you would never have the opportunity to meet them or see their countries. Ahmed did the best he could with the choice he made, regardless of the fact that these restrictions are a violation of his basic human rights.

After Ahmed and I met, we were faced with a “choice” that was not really a choice at all: to live our lives separately until we are in our 50s, or to defy military rules and marry. The more I live my life, the more I am convinced that it is unconscionable to tell two responsible, single adults that their decision of who they marry is not up to them or that love does not matter. Marriage used to be a different institution, driven by the need to survive. People had shorter life expectancies and needed children to survive economically. Whereas it used to be that having numerous children helped an agricultural based family survive, now having many children is a financial burden. The world is different now. Marriage now is different. Marriages or lifelong partnerships are seen as a way to build personal fulfillment and a place for love.

It is too easy to dismiss love as unimportant. It is intangible, changing, and difficult to define. Like any emotion, it can change with time and circumstances, and we do not fully understand how love is felt. As a deeply personal emotion, it is hard for anyone on the outside to empathize, even if that person is in love. No one feels love in quite the same way.  Despite its variable nature, love has the power to drive armies, change the world, and cause physical pain and immeasurable joy.

The UN recognizes this need for love and marriage in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ”Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” If you look at the list of restrictions put on Egyptian military members and the UN Declaration, you will notice that almost every one of those rights is denied. When your right to marry the person you love is denied by your country’s laws, society, or family pressure, something wonderful is destroyed. The best part of you, that is capable of loving without conditions, which sacrifices willingly, is hurt. All humans, no matter how horrible, have the capacity to love, and to deny an adult real and legitimate love is to deny what makes them human.  

During Ahmed’s interrogations with the military, no one was able to produce documented sentencing guidelines for the violation of the rule that forbids officers from marrying foreigners. In fact, the only items in military law in reference to this states that military officers who get married to foreigners are not supposed to be sued before a military court, they are only supposed to be discharged from service.  Item 74 (1983) states that officers who marry foreigners should be discharged from military service. Item 70 (2000), Id. reinforces Item 74 from 1983, specifically stating that military commanders cannot bring officers to trial or punish them in any other way besides expulsion from the military. Yet on November 28, 2011, Ahmed was brought before a military court (case number 5134 from Military Misdemeanors, East Cairo Military Prosecution) and charged with disobeying military orders (Items 153 and 166) because he married me, an American citizen.

On December 3, 2011, Ahmed was sentenced to one year in military prison for marrying me. He is currently held in prison with violent offenders; men charged with crimes such as murder, theft, and drug use. He has no access to a phone, except with special permission from the prison commander, and although the rest of his family can visit him, and his attorney and I must get special permission to visit. His attorney’s request for a visit has been turned down twice. Ahmed faced a biased court, with a verdict that was decided before he even walked in the door. Though the judge admitted the charges did not fit the crime, Ahmed was still found guilty. There is no presumption of innocence, and no recognition that an officer in the Egyptian military is human before he is an officer.

My right to choose is still protected and I am so thankful. I am thankful I chose to marry him, and I am thankful he chose to marry me, even knowing the possible consequences.  However, as the anniversary of the January Revolution in Egypt approaches, I encourage all stakeholders in Egypt’s future to consider this case. This is a clear-cut, systematic, and repeated violation of human rights that is enforced and supported by the military at the highest ranks: the Air Force Commander himself must approve the prosecution and the sentencing.  Do not dismiss it because it involves one individual, or involves a personal decision. It is hypocrisy at its worst to ignore individual freedoms as we push for democratic reform; individual freedoms are the basis for a fair democracy.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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