Egypt’s Hunger Strikers

In 2011, they stood united against tyranny and for freedom. Today, though divided by politics and locked up in separate prisons, Egypt’s dissenters still fight, this time to survive. At 26, Mohamed Soltan may be dying. After more than 240 days of a hunger strike in which he allows himself only fluids, he recently made his second visit to an intensive care unit in three months.

A graduate of Ohio State University and the son of a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, he was arrested in August 2013 during a crackdown on Brotherhood sympathizers following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s elected president; the security forces were looking for his father, who wasn’t home, and arrested him instead, eventually charging him with funding a demonstration and spreading “false information” to destabilize Egypt.

For the last four months, Mr. Soltan has been too weak to walk unassisted. Recently, his family says, a police officer told him to make a choice: “End your hunger strike, or stop drinking water so you would die and get it over with.”

Mr. Soltan, a dual American-Egyptian citizen, has now staged the longest hunger strike recorded in Egyptian prisons, but he is not alone. Thousands of suspected political dissenters — not all of them followers of the Muslim Brotherhood — are currently in prison, and scores have gone on hunger strikes to protest inhumane conditions there and the denial of access to justice. Pretrial detention is extended in ludicrous hearings where judges frequently don’t see or speak to the defendants or their lawyers. Their sentences have been based on evidence that includes private home videos, family vacation photos and, in one instance, a music video. They file official complaints detailing abuses, torture and inhumane treatment in prisons, but to no avail. Now, they are willing to starve themselves for as long as it takes for the world to listen.

So far, the response of the law enforcement authorities and justice system has bordered on criminal irresponsibility. It has included denying that hunger strikes take place at all, failing to officially record reports of hunger strikes, making threats, attempting to force-feed striking prisoners or torture them, in hopes of forcing them to end their protest.

Ibrahim al-Yamani, a 26-year-old physician, was suspended in a contorted position and held in solitary confinement for 20 days before he ended an 89-day hunger strike last March, his family told human rights workers. But soon after, he started a new hunger strike, which has now lasted more than 150 days.

“He looks like he just came out of a grave,” his mother, Nafeesa, told human rights interviewers. “He used to be so strong. Now he always holds on to a chair just to be able to move.”

Mr. Yamani’s mother complains that his strike activity has never been officially acknowledged, and that his lawyer’s repeated reports to prosecutors about torture and the strike were never investigated. Mr. Yamani said he learned from prison officials that when they asked the advice of prosecutors on what to do about his strike, the prosecutors’ response was: “Let us know when he dies.”

Like Mr. Soltan, Mr. Yamani was arrested in August 2013, during the turmoil that followed the ouster by military officials of Mr. Morsi, who had been elected under the Muslim Brotherhood’s banner. But Mr. Soltan’s hunger strike, unlike Mr. Yamani’s, was eventually made public. Last May, after nine months of pretrial detention, he was finally rolled in on a gurney to face a judge and tell his story in a public hearing.

Speaking into a microphone, he said he was tortured so badly that titanium nails, implanted in his elbow and shoulder after an old injury, became dislocated, causing him to bleed enough to need surgery. A fellow inmate performed it in his cell, because authorities had refused to transfer him to a medical facility. Prison officials threatened him with death, he told the judge, according to a leaked video, adding that it “did not seem far-fetched since we watched other prisoners die.” So Mr. Soltan remained in custody and started his long hunger strike last January. The authorities have still not investigated his allegations. Another hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11.

Across Egypt, even as dozens more political prisoners join Mr. Soltan in staging hunger strikes, the government continues to deny their plight and ignore requests by autonomous civil society groups to visit prisons and examine the conditions there. Street demonstrations are virtually banned, further minimizing the ability to air grievances and leading to the arrest of prominent non-Islamist activists, some now on hunger strikes. Meanwhile, security agents have escaped punishment for several mass killings of demonstrators in the last three years. It looks bad, right? But no worse than a small, damp, solitary confinement cell. If Mr. Yamani and Mr. Soltan can find it in themselves to go on with their protests after torture and a year of detention in unimaginable conditions, we have a responsibility to shout out their names, tell their stories and make sure they are known and remembered, in hopes of deterring new oppression. So know their stories, and spread the word. Do it soon, because Mr. Soltan may be dying.

Mayy El Sheikh is the communications director for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

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