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Alaa Abdel Fattah: A prisoner banned from reading

Abdel Fattah is serving five years in Torah prison on charges related to Egypt's notoriously repressive protest law. Because of restrictions on his right to read, to receive information, and to correspond with family and friends, he is severely limited in his ability to communicate with the outside world.

Activist Alaa Abdel Fattah stands in front of a police officer at a court during his trial in Cairo, November 11, 2014
Activist Alaa Abdel Fattah stands in front of a police officer at a court during his trial in Cairo, November 11, 2014

REUTERS/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper

This statement was originally published on afteegypt.org on 2 March 2017.

Activist and software engineer Alaa Abdel Fattah is serving a five-year prison sentence in Egypt's Torah Prison.

He began serving his sentence in October 2014, after the Cairo Criminal Court ruled to sentence him and others to five years in prison and a fine of one hundred thousand Egyptian pounds in February 2014. Abdel Fattah and his fellow defendants have also been subjected to police surveillance for a period equal to the duration of his jail sentence, which in Abdel Fattah's case, is another five years, for allegedly inciting protest. This case is identified in the media as “the events of the Shura Council”.

Abdel Fattah has been in isolation since the beginning of 2015. Because of restrictions on his right to read, to receive information, and to correspond with family and friends, he is severely limited in his ability to communicate with the outside world. The prison administration has refused the entry and delivery of a large number of publications and books to Abdel Fattah without legal or logical justification. Mail arrival was also delayed for long periods and urgent letters of correspondence where not received in due time. Many of the letters sent to him did not reach him at all.

In response to these severely arbitrary measures, the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) filed a lawsuit in front of the administrative court in Cairo (case No. 20107 for the year 2017). The association demanded that the order banning Abdel Fattah from receiving books and scientific periodicals related to his profession be urgently lifted. The lawsuit referred to a number of important periodicals that had an impact on his development and career, as it is quite difficult for him to keep pace with technological developments, in light of being banned from reading.

In the lawsuit, AFTE demanded the admittance of two daily newspapers (for example: Al Shorouq and Al Youm Al Sabea) to the appelant at his expense, ordered the administrative body to deliver all correspondence regularly to the appellant, and demanded prison authorities disclose the reasons behind its withholding of communications, books and publications.

The association based its lawsuit on a number of rules related to the law regulating prisons and internal regulations of Egyptian prisons, which afford prisoners the right to be informed, to read, and to receive correspondence. The lawsuit is also based on the constitutional provisions, which highlight the right of access to information in all ways.

The petition attributed the violations committed by the prison administration's decision to ban the entry of publications to Abdel Fattah to a number of major international conventions on human rights, which clearly protect the human rights of prisoners, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as well as the provisions concerning the right of a prisoner to be in contact with the outside world, which are organized by the United Nations' standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, also known as the Mandela rules.

“There is a need to revise the legislation regulating prison conditions on the one hand, and on the other hand the policies pursued in the Egyptian prison administration. The inadequacy of laws and regulations governing the work of prisons is in urgent need for a comprehensive review in accordance with the commitment to constitutional standards and guidelines introduced by the modern Egyptian constitution, such as the right to access to information” Hassan Azhari, head of AFTE's legal unit said.

“Abdel-Fattah is denied the rights legally guaranteed for all prisoners," said Azhar, referring to the depraved conditions Abdel Fattah is experiencing. "This intransigence he faces is another penalty added to the prison sentence, which is a punishment for exercising his right to freely express himself.”

After the administrative court examined the first case hearings of Abdel Fattah's lawsuit related to his right to read and correspond on 21 February, on a February 27 visit to prison, Abdel Fattah's family was surprised to find new instructions from prison authorities preventing the entry of any books, including textbooks, to all prisoners. Prison officials attributed this to instructions issued after Abdel Fattah's case.

AFTE sent telegrams to the Attorney General and the Minister of Interior and head of the Prison Service sector in the February 27, 2017 to document and investigate this incident, as it is a violation of the prisoner's right to litigation, to complain, and to address the authorities. This right is defined in Article 97 of the Egyptian constitution, and measures taken by prison authorities have been of concern to Abdel Fattah's family, who fear that the Ministry of Interior and the prison administration's persistent targeting of Abdel Fattah will harm him and risk his safety.

AFTE submitted a request to the Egyptian prosecutor on March 2, because it has the powers and functions under the organization of prisons and the Criminal Procedure Law and the Law of the Judicial Authority, to enter the prison and make sure the prison administration is abiding by the laws and regulations, and to communicate with prisoners to listen to their complaints.

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