Relatives and colleagues of Egyptian human rights defenders arrested in an unprecedented state crackdown said they are working on “saving the lives” of three staffers, who have been denied family visits and are probably being held in freezing solitary confinement cells without adequate food.
Three senior members of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) were arrested last week on terrorism charges after briefing over a dozen diplomats, including the UK’s deputy head of mission, about the situation in Egypt.
The arrests of executive director Gasser Abdel-Razek, criminal justice unit head Karim Ennarah, and administrative chief Mohammed Basheer, ignited international uproar with condemnation coming from the UK Foreign Office, the US Department of State, the European Union and the United Nations.
But Hossam Bahgat, the acting chief of the group, told The Independent that his team has had to urgently shift its focus from demanding a speedy release to the immediate concerns for the health of the detainees.
The families have been denied customary visits and phone calls as well as the right to deliver food, clothing or bedding to their imprisoned relatives, who have only seen their lawyers for a few minutes and are being held in inhumane conditions in Cairo's notorious Tora prison.
“We’re really worried they haven’t been seen or heard from since they arrived in Tora prison. We are equally worried for Gasser. Even though his lawyers got to see him, his wife went to prison to see him and give him warm clothes, and was denied the visit,” said Mr Bahgat.
“We need to make sure they don’t get pneumonia or a chest infection during a pandemic in cold weather in a notorious prison with little to no medical care for prisoners.”
“Now we have to work on saving their lives,” he said.
In the UK, Mr Ennarah’s British wife and documentary filmmaker, Jess Kelly, said she has had no contact with her husband since he was arrested, which she described as a “hostage-taking situation”.
She was extremely concerned he too was being held in solitary confinement and poorly treated.
Mr Ennarah was planning on imminently moving to the UK for good because of the pressure on civil society but was arrested before he got the chance.
“We were literally about to press send on his spouse visa for him to come here,” Ms Kelly told The Independent, describing the pressure EIPR employees faced in their work
“It had been getting worse and worse and Karim had been getting justifiably paranoid,” she added.
She briefly spoke to her husband before he was arrested on Wednesday while on holiday in the Red Sea resort of Dahab, after the security forces raided his family home in Cairo.
“He kept saying I love you so much, I’m sorry I didn’t leave sooner, I should have left sooner,” she recounted, breaking down.
Rights groups, including EIPR, have repeatedly raised the alarm over the lack of due process in Egypt’s legal system and its squalid prisons, which are often overcrowded. Many have documented rampant abuse and even torture, accusations the state has denied.
“It’s a situation people in the UK cannot really understand. He doesn’t have proper legal representation and cannot mount his defence,” Ms Kelly continued.
“No one can even speak to Karim, apart from lawyers for a few minutes under the watch [of the security forces] every 15 days for potentially two years,” she added.
Mr Abdel-Razek appeared for a prosecution hearing on Monday in a poor state after his head was forcibly shaven and he had been held in solitary. The two other staffers, never appeared. They have had no contact with the outside world.
Late on Wednesday, 37 senators and members of congress penned a letter to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi urging him to unconditionally release the trio, highlighting the poor conditions of detention.
Egypt has launched a furious crackdown against civil society since the 2013 military coup, which saw then army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi oust Egypt’s unpopular but first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi.
In the aftermath hundreds of Muslim brotherhood supporters were killed in raids on protests and tens of thousands of secular and Islamist dissidents have been jailed. Multiple human rights organisations and unlicensed protests were banned.
EIPR, which regularly reports on inhumane conditions in prison, had already been targeted.
In February the Egyptian authorities arrested EIPR researcher Patrick George Zaki upon his return from Italy where he had been studying.
He remains behind bars also on false news charges.
Mr Bahgat fears the arrests were “coordinated”.
“Every corner of the state has become part of this campaign [against EIPR] including the foreign ministry, “he said.
“There is a coordinated smear campaign in the media, that uses identical lines as if from the same report,” he added.
The Egyptian government has rejected criticism, with the foreign ministry on Saturday releasing a statement denouncing what it called “interference” in the legal proceedings. Mr Sisi has repeatedly said there are no political prisoners in Egypt.