Yara Sallam: From activist's passion to Egypt's prisons
How does it feel when someone you actually know is put in prison? Perhaps as a campaigner for justice for individuals, groups and communities it shouldn’t feel different – after all, their position is just as bad – but somehow knowing the person gives it a completely different perspective.
Two years ago I met Yara Sallam – a passionate and intelligent lawyer and activist then working for the Egyptian human rights organisation Nazra for Feminist Studies. Nazra supports women across Egypt campaigning for a more equal place in a fundamentally patriarchal society.
We had a super evening at an Ethiopian restaurant sharing food and exchanging views on everything from the quality of subsidised bread, how to be a non-person when the authorities were about to swoop, to sexual harassment of women in public places.
Yara was full of hope for the future, hanging on to the vision that inspired so many Egyptians in the 18-day uprising, or Arab Spring of 2011, that got rid of repressive ruler Hosni Mubarak.
Even as the clampdown on human rights was accelerating she refused to be downhearted, looking long-term to her grandchildren’s future for change.
But what chance is there of change when young leaders like Yara are locked up and silenced?
To suppress criticism and opposition, Egypt introduced a draconian Protest Law last November. All public gatherings over 10 people need a licence. You apply – and are refused.
On 21 June, scores of peaceful activists took to the streets to protest about the law. After the march was tear-gassed, she and her cousin were arrested by policemen while buying water at a nearby kiosk. Tear gas burns the throat and stings the eyes to the point of blindness, as she told me when we met.
The two women were bundled into a waiting police van and interrogated for much of the night. Her cousin was released next day, but not Yara.
Working for the high-profile Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights as a researcher – not just any researcher but the award-winning North Africa Human Rights Defender of 2013 – Yara was a catch. It transpired she was part of a round-up of 23 activists, many well-known for their activism on human rights.
Within eight days Yara and the others had been taken to a courthouse inside the notorious Tora Prison complex in Cairo to be tried on charges of taking part in an unauthorised demonstration that endangered public order and security; vandalising property; making a show of force in order to terrify and threaten the lives of passers-by; and participating in a gathering of over five people in order to disturb the public order and commit crimes.
All are baseless fabrications designed to extend their detention especially when evidence was not supplied during the hearing – and the judge told court officials to inform the lawyers the trial would be adjourned leaving the defendants, their families and lawyers in a limbo situation for the next two days, not knowing the date of the next trial. Yara is now in al-Qanater women’s prison.
Why bother about accurate evidence when suppression of criticism and the truth is your aim?
Never mind if the judicial authorities are cast in a ridiculous light as in the case of the three al–Jazeera media workers who were jailed in July.
They were accused of “falsifying the news” and “aiding a banned group” because they had interviewed people from both the pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood groups. Merely doing their job in an even-handed way was deemed an offence.
The video ‘evidence’ produced in court was laughable and didn’t even relate to the men’s work in Egypt. For picking up a useless spent cartridge Baher Mohamed added a further three years to his seven-year sentence.
But this repression starts well before the court room. Yara and thousands of other activists whose organisations are trying to build up civil society and bring greater freedom and equality to all underrepresented groups face intimidation and threats to their very existence.
A proposed law fiercely challenged by Amnesty and Egyptian human rights organisations will restrict the funding, scope and above all, the independence of their activities.
As she and the others with whom she was arrested head to court this week, what hope there is for Yara and other detained activists rests on the continued existence and action by just such Egyptian organisations and international human rights organisations like Amnesty in maintaining a watch, exposing violations, and raising our voices in concern and protest.
You can help Yara and her co-defendants
Please raise your voice, stand with them by faxing a letter to the public prosecutor in Cairo, or sending a letter via the Egyptian embassy in London.
Every letter makes a difference and could mean freedom for Yara and the other activists.
You can download a short suggested letter below, but please personalise this if you wish.
Please fax your letter to: +202 2 577 4716 or +202 2 575 7165 (switched off after office hours, GMT+2)
Or you can send your appeals to:
His Excellency Mr Ashraf Elkholy
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
26 South Street
This blog was written by Ann Marcus, our Country Coordinator for Egypt.
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.