International rights organizations demanded the release of more prisoners on Thursday, following President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s pardoning of 100 detainees Wednesday to mark the Eid holidays.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a letter to Sisi on Thursday, ahead of his visit to address the 70th round of the United Nations General Assembly.
“While we welcome the presidential pardon of the Al Jazeera journalists on Wednesday, the reality remains that journalists are being arrested, harassed, and threatened in relation to their work at unprecedented levels in Egypt,” the letter read.
CPJ cites 18 journalists behind bars. “We are sending this letter because we know he can do more and we want to make sure no one thinks of what he has done as being enough,” Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for CPJ told Mada Masr. “He released only 10 percent of the journalists behind bars.”
Wednesday’s pardons included Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, both sentenced to three years in prison in the Al Jazeera trial. Shady Abdel Hamid, another defendant in the case, was also released with them.
The letter highlighted the case of photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as Shawkan, detained since August 14, 2013, the day of the violent dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood encampments in Cairo. Shawkan, who has hepatitis C, has been on pre-trial detention for over two years.
Other cases highlighted by CPJ include those of Abdallah al-Fakharany, Sami Mostafa and Mohamed al-Adly, sentenced to life last April on charges of spreading chaos.
Similarly, Amnesty International issued a statement on Wednesday, in which it described Sisi’s pardons as “little more than a token gesture.”
“The pardons,” Amnesty said, “should be followed by further action to seriously address the appalling human rights record under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, including the intolerance of peaceful dissent and criticism of the authorities.”
“While these pardons come as a great relief, it is ludicrous that some of these people were ever behind bars in the first place,” it continued.
“We’re delighted that these activists and journalists are free and back with their families. But the timing of the pardons was very cynical, coming as it did just ahead of President Sisi’s visit to the UN,” Nicholas Piachaud, Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, told Mada Masr.
“Egypt’s authorities are effectively holding political prisoners hostage, releasing them only when politically expedient, or when they need to deflect international criticism of their appalling human rights record,” he asserted.
“It’s now clear that sustained, international pressure on Egypt’s authorities does work. This means states raising concerns with Egypt’s authorities, publicly condemning abuses and making sure there are diplomats in the courtrooms to observe key trials. But it also means ordinary people across the world, who have tirelessly protested, petitioned their governments and taken action to make sure that Egypt’s human rights crisis doesn’t drop off the map,” Piachaud explained.
Such sentiments have been echoed by local human rights defenders. “Yes, we were happy for the releases, because happiness is a right for those oppressed. But our happiness won’t be complete until all those oppressed are released,” said Ragia Omran, a lawyer and member of the Front for the Defense of Protesters, who worked on the Ettehadiya protest case, in which 22 defendants were released, including activists Sanaa Seif and Yara Sallam.
“Freedom is a right. It is not a pledge from anyone. We will continue our work and struggle,” she added.
Meanwhile, others celebrated the president’s move as an act of generosity, with headlines in pro-government newspapers reading, “Sisi’s Eid gift” (Al-Youm Al-Sabea) and “Sisi’s gift to the youth and their families” (Al-Wafd).