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Chinese money, Saudi security and arms for Egypt: does Cameron care about human rights at all?

It has been months since the media first started suggesting that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would visit the UK soon, but it seems the “autocratic” leader will finally make it to London this week. It’s not too surprising that it’s taken this long for him to get round to visiting, he must have been pretty busy overseeing the arrest of thousands of political prisoners and sentencing of hundreds to death in mass trials, after all.

It’s also not surprising that the UK government is rolling out the red carpet for him, despite his controversial rise to power and the deterioration of human rights for Egyptian people during his 17 month rule.

It was, after all, only a few weeks ago that the UK rolled out those same carpets for the Chinese President Xi Jinping – a visit which ended in controversy with a Tiananmen Square massacre survivor being bundled to the ground and arrested by British police for waving a placard. Perhaps this was a bizarre attempt to make Xi feel more at home through a display of authoritarian oppression. Freedom of speech? Nah…we don’t care much for it either Mr President.

David Cameron was criticised for not raising human rights with Xi (a charge he denied), but – again – it’s not really surprising that human rights were probably last on the list of things to raise (if they made it on to the list at all), given that a senior Foreign Office civil servant recently told MPs that human rights were no longer a priority for the government.

No sugar coating it there…the government is pretty clear, prosperity (read: trade) trumps human rights every time. This is despite previously saying (sensibly, in my humble opinion) that human rights and democratic principles are actually fundamental components of a stable, peaceful and prosperous society, not a bonus extra.

How sustainable can (trade and security) relations be with a country in which the justice system is used as a tool of oppression, civil society is restricted and repressive laws are signed in?

But this is exactly the situation in Egypt. Tens of thousands of people have been detained since President Sisi’s predecessor Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power in July 2013.

This includes journalists, a whole generation of young protesters (like Mahmoud Hussein, detained since January 2014 for wearing a t-shirt saying “Nation Without Torture”, who in cruel irony now alleges being tortured himself), and thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, sympathisers or even just those suspected of having Muslim Brotherhood sympathies.

Take the case of disabled student Israa Al-Taweel, 23, who was arrested by security forces on 1 June. She had no chance to contact a lawyer or her family and they spent 15 days desperately looking for her. She faces accusations of “belonging to a banned group” and “broadcasting false news”, simply for being in the company of people wanted by the security forces and for having a camera with her.

Israa has not received adequate medical treatment in detention for an injury sustained in a protest in January 2014 that left her unable to walk, and there are fears that if she doesn’t receive treatment in detention, she may never walk again.

Israa’s case is surely one that David Cameron should raise with al-Sisi while he is here. But all the indications suggest that the visit will focus on security, not human rights…even though we can't have one without the other.

Given the Prime Minister’s response to Jon Snow’s pressure to raise the case of activist Mohammed al-Nimr, arrested at 17 years old, with the Saudi authorities (“We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia…we receive from them important security information that keeps us safe.” – as if that explains why the UK Prime Minister shouldn’t register his opposition to a young man being executed), I’m doubtful human rights will feature alongside security when it comes to Egypt.

Even more so given the UK’s own reports showing that earlier this year millions of pounds worth of arms sales were agreed to al-Sisi’s government, including components for military vehicles…even though military vehicles were used by the Egyptian army when protestors were killed in 2011 and 2013.

David Cameron should think further ahead than the short-term “benefits” that arms deals and power stations bring, and press for countries we do business with (whether trade or security) to create stable and peaceful societies; the kind only possible where young people like Israa and Mahmoud are able to peacefully express their views without fear of imprisonment and torture.

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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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