By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
UN’s Bachelet: ‘Release Those Detained for Critical Views’Citing an Egyptian pardoning decree, the International Publishers Association late Thursday (April 16), has called again on Egyptian president Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to release the imprisoned publisher Khaled Lotfy—with special urgency mounting amid the contagion’s spread.
As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Lotfy is the founder of the Cairo-based Tanmia bookshop and publishing house. He reportedly was sentenced in the spring of 2019 to five years in prison on charges of spreading rumors and divulging military secrets. Allegations in the case involve an Arabic translation of The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel by Uri Bar-Joseph, a book published in 2016 in the United States by HarperCollins in a translation by David Hazony.
As is reflected in this new appeal—which is tied to the coming start of Ramadan on April 23 and the April 25 observance in Egypt of Sinai Liberation Day—the IPA has begun taking a more active stance on behalf of its Prix Voltaire winners. Whether its efforts at mediation can be successful remains to be seen, but the coronavirus threat to prisoners is growing concern.
Annually chosen by the association’s Freedom to Publish committee, the Prix Voltaire laureates are selected for showing “exemplary courage in upholding the freedom to publish and enabling others to exercise their freedom of expression.” And while the award has so far done much to raise the profiles of the recipients, its honor seems not to have led to the release of those who languish in custody.
Among Lotfy’s Prix Voltaire colleagues is the Swedish publisher Gui Minhai, just sentenced in China in February by the Ningbo Intermediate People’s Court on charges of “illegally providing intelligence” to overseas parties. Another, the Saudi dissident writer Raif Badawi, reportedly remains jailed at Dhahban Central Prison, despite many international efforts to gain his release.
The leading statement to el-Sisi from the International Publishers Association comes from Kristenn Einarsson of Norway, the longtime chair of the 69-nation association’s Freedom to Publish committee: “This year’s Ramadan pardon list is even more important,” Einarsson writes, “as the world tries to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We appeal for Khaled’s release so he can be with his family at this very difficult time.”
The Timing of IPA’s Outreach to el-Sisi
In the case of Egypt’s Lotfy, the new appeal from the IPA takes into account what its offices in Geneva say is the second article of Cairo’s pardoning decree No. 157 of April 15.
“According to the Egyptian constitution,” the organization writes in its messaging to the news media, “the president has the right to issue pardons for convicted prisoners after consulting with the cabinet. In addition, the release of the prisoners comes as part of the Egyptian interior ministry’s reform plan to release convicts who have been seen as qualified to start engaging in society.”
The timing with Sinai Liberation Day and Ramadan is seen as a chance for the Al-Sisi government to demonstrate its largess.
The Sinai Peninsula saw the end of Israeli occupation on April 25, 1982, and the last Israel Defense Forces personnel left Taba in 1988, as directed by the 1979 treaty and ensuing debates. The 25th is a day on which Egyptians honor their own military forces’ sacrifices.
The start of Ramadan this year coincides with the planned end of an extension of lockdown restrictions imposed in Egypt in an effort to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. A curfew is in effect in the country nightly, as sports centers, social sites, and retail are either fully closed or allowed operation only during specified hours. Except for the ministry of health, public agencies’ services are suspended.
At this writing, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reports 2,673 cases confirmed in Egypt, and 196 deaths.
Of course, there are worldwide concerns for the pandemic’s impact on prisons, where the pathogen’s spread can be extremely hard to contain, making Lotfy’s situation potentially all the more critical.
Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights and former president of Chile, on March 25 issued a statement on the problem of COVID-19 “rampaging through places of detention.”
Bachelet said, in part, “In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. People are often held in unhygienic conditions and health services are inadequate or even non-existent. Physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible.
“Governments are facing huge demands on resources in this crisis and are having to take difficult decisions. But I urge them not to forget those behind bars, or those confined in places such as closed mental health facilities, nursing homes and orphanages, because the consequences of neglecting them are potentially catastrophic. …
“Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”
As we reported in January, Lotfy’s last available appeal was rejected on December 24 by Egypt’s military court of cassation, the highest court of appeal. Only a pardon from el-Sisi can see him released.
Below is a video of the UN’s Bachelet in her statement on the danger to prisoners during the pandemic, asserting that the state has a duty to protect inmates’ physical and mental health and well-being, as called for in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules.
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