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Egypt: Call for release of at-risk prisoners amid coronavirus crisis

Thousands of people in Egypt have been arbitrarily detained over the past six years in long-term pre-trial detention © Amnesty International

Prisoners already held in inhumane conditions in overcrowded jails

Booker-shortlisted novelist Ahdaf Soueif among those arrested after protests this week

Amid rising fears over the spread of coronavirus in Egypt’s overcrowded prisons, the Egyptian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all activists and human rights defenders detained solely for peacefully expressing their views, said Amnesty International.


The authorities should also consider releasing pre-trial detainees and detainees who are especially vulnerable to the disease - including those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly - as a means to reduce the prison population and prevent harm. They should also consider adopting non-custodial measures for people accused of non-violent offences.

Egyptian campaign groups - such as Free Zyad Elelaimy and Free Ramy Shaath - are also calling for the release of detainees in pre-trial detention, people detained for non-violent offences and prisoners with health conditions.


According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, prison populations are particularly exposed to infectious diseases like coronavirus and conditions of detention can exacerbate the risks. These include the risk of higher transmission rates, especially in overcrowded prisons and when health systems are of poorer quality than in the community. Amnesty has previously documented the inhumane conditions of detention in several Egyptian prisons, including the lack of adequate medical care.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, said: 


“The Egyptian authorities should be prompted by the risk of COVID-19 spreading in prisons to fulfil their international obligations and release the thousands of activists, human rights defenders, journalists and peaceful critics held simply for expressing their opinions or peacefully protesting. These individuals should not even be in prison in the first place.

“Given well-documented concerns that Egyptian prisons are overcrowded and suffer from poor healthcare and hygiene and sanitation conditions, the authorities should consider releasing detainees held in pre-trial detention, as well detainees who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, such as those with underlying medical conditions and the elderly. 

“The authorities have a duty to ensure that all those in custody are provided with adequate medical care.”

Protests and arrests

Earlier this week, four prominent women activists - Laila Soueif, Ahdaf Soueif, Mona Seif and Rabab el-Mahdi - were arrested after they staged a protest in central Cairo demanding the release of prisoners over fears of a coronavirus outbreak in jails. A prosecutor has accused them of “inciting a protest”, “disseminating false information” and “possession of material disseminating false information”. He later ordered their release on bail pending investigation. Although they made their bail payments the same day (18 March), they remained in detention overnight without legal grounds. Yesterday, the authorities transferred Laila Soueif to the Supreme State Security Prosecution building in New Cairo, where a prosecutor again ordered her release on bail. All four were released last night.


Also yesterday, the Supreme State Security Prosecution ordered the release of 15 politicians and activists who had been arbitrarily detained for several months.

Thousands detained

Thousands of people in Egypt have been arbitrarily detained over the past six years in long-term pre-trial detention, which frequently exceeds the two-year legal limit under Egyptian law. Amnesty recently published a report on the Supreme State Security Prosecution body showing how the Egyptian authorities have been using pre-trial detention as an alternative to administrative detention in order to detain thousands of opponents and critics.


Under international human rights law, pre-trial detention must be an exceptional measure used only as a last resort when there is substantial risk of flight, harm to others or interference with the evidence or investigation that cannot be allayed by other means. The presumption of release pending trial is based on the presumption of innocence, which is enshrined in international law and recognised in the Egyptian constitution.


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