CAIRO – Egyptian authorities released three activists and three journalists on Sunday after several months of pre-trial detention, officials and lawyers said. The releases came after U.S. officials, among others, expressed concern over the arrests and harassment of rights advocates and critics of the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
According to two judicial officials, state security prosecutors have ordered the release of six pending investigations into charges against them. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to inform the media.
The accusations rage from spreading fake news and abusing social media platforms to joining a terrorist group, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood that Egypt designated as a terrorist group in 2013.
Despite long-term detention, those arrested and released have not yet been tried, their lawyers claim.
Abdel-Fattah was arrested in October 2019 in a city west of Cairo, during an action that followed small but rare anti-government protests. Hundreds were arrested then, but many were later released.
Prominent lawyer Mahienour el-Masry was also released on Sunday, her sister Maysoon el-Masry wrote in a Facebook post that includes a photo of a lawyer in a white uniform for incarcerated people and a face mask.
Authorities also released journalist Gamal el-Gamal, lawyer Nasser Amin said. El-Gamal, who is widely known for columns criticizing al-Sissi’s government, was arrested earlier this year after arriving at Cairo International Airport from Turkey, where he has lived since 2017.
Among those released on Sunday were journalists Mustafa el-Aasar and Moataz Wadnan, who have been in custody since 2018, according to rights lawyer Malek Adly.
Abdel-Nasser Ismail, deputy head of the Socialist People’s Alliance Party, also took a walk earlier Sunday after nearly two years in custody.
The releases came amid calls from lawmakers and public figures to release activists and advocates who have been detained in recent years for what they say are politically motivated allegations.
The allegations stem from a tweet Bahgat wrote last year, accusing the chairman of the election body of allegedly mismanaging last year’s parliamentary elections, he said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Bahgat’s indictment and the detention and harassment of Egyptian civil society leaders, academics and journalists led by al-Sissi.
“We have communicated to the Egyptian government our firm belief that individuals like Hossam Bahgat should not be the target for the peaceful expression of their views,” Price said last week. “As a strategic partner, we have raised this concern with the Egyptian government and we will continue to do so.”
Also last week, an Egyptian court began the trial of six secular activists and journalists, including former MP Zyad el-Elaimy, human rights lawyer Khalid Ali said. The six, who were arrested in 2019, face a series of charges, including disturbing public peace by spreading false news about domestic affairs. The next court hearing is on July 29, Ali said.
El-Elaimy and others were added by the court last year to the list of suspected terrorists for the next five years. The decision was confirmed last week by the Court of Cassation – the highest criminal court in Egypt.
Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath, who helped establish an Egyptian branch of the Palestinian-led boycott movement against Israel, known as the BDS, was also added to the list of terrorists. Shaath, the son of a former Palestinian foreign minister, was also detained in 2019 but has not been charged or sent to court for trial. His wife, a French citizen, was deported.
The Egyptian government has waged widespread actions against discontent in recent years, imprisoning thousands of people, mostly Islamists but also secular activists who took part in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Journalists are also targeted, dozens of prisoners, and some expelled. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Egypt remains among the world’s leading prisons for journalists, along with Turkey and China.