Alaa Abdelfattah, a prominent blogger and activist who has written about politics and human rights violations for numerous outlets, including the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper and the progressive Mada Masr news website, was re-arrested in September 2019 a few months after his conditional release from prison where he served a five-year sentence. The blogger is accused of supporting a banned group and spreading false news.
Abdelfattah had previously been detained on October 27, 2014, on charges of organizing an illegal protest and assaulting a police officer, according to CPJ research. Authorities on March 29, 2019, released the journalist from prison, on condition that for five years he report daily to a police station, according to Mada Masr.
When Abdelfattah reported to Dokki Police Station in Giza on September 29, 2019 national security agency officers arrested the journalist, according to a report by Mada Masr.
The following day, a Cairo national security prosecutor ordered Abdelfattah to be held for 15 days pending trial on charges of spreading false news and supporting a banned group, according to a Facebook post by his lawyer, Fatma Serag.
Authorities also arrested one of Abdelfattah’s lawyers, Mohamed el-Baker, while the lawyer accompanied Abdelfattah during police questioning, according to news reports. The lawyer was ordered into pretrial detention for 15 days on the same charges, according to news reports. As of October 28, 2020, el-Baker remains in prison, according to news reports.
Abdelfattah was one of several journalists included in a mass trial. As of mid-October 2019, Egypt had charged over 3,690 people with membership of a banned group, spreading false news, and misusing social media platforms to disrupt national security, the local legal non-governmental organization Egyptian Center for Economic & Social Rights reported.
His arrest came as the government cracked down on protests over corruption in the army and that called on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to resign, according to news reports. Abdelfattah had posted about the protests and arrests on Facebook.
Abdelfattah had also written about his probation conditions for Mada Masr and on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. Mada Masr published editorial and video stories, including interviews with the journalist.
Abdelfattah’s original sentence was based on charges that he organized a protest against the trial of civilians in military courts on November 26, 2013 and assaulted a police officer. Abdelfattah’s family, lawyers, and several human rights organizations told CPJ at the time that they believe the blogger was charged at least partly in retaliation for his writing about alleged human rights abuses by the police and security forces.
The prosecution submitted as evidence in the first case tweets and quotes from Abdelfattah’s writing in which he was critical of the judiciary and security forces, his family and lawyers told CPJ. State media broadcasted tweets and excerpts of Abdelfattah’s articles and Facebook posts, branding them proof of his anti-state beliefs, according to news reports.
While serving his sentence, the journalist wrote a series of articles from prison, including a March 2017 article on the changing roles of bloggers and activists, and how governments jail activists like himself to create a chilling effect among those who are free.
In an October 9, 2019, Facebook post, the journalist’s sister Mona Seif said that since her brother’s return to Tora prison Abdelfattah has been beaten, blindfolded verbally abused, and threatened by police officers who told him he will never get out of prison if he reports the ill-treatment.
Seif told CPJ in October 2019 that between the journalist’s release from prison in March, and his re-arrest, the journalist had spent every night in custody due to the conditions of his release. Under police observation, it is left to the discretion of the officer on duty as to whether those reporting to the station spend the night in cells, or just sign in and leave. The court that ordered his release in March also prohibited the journalist from managing his financial assets and property for five years, according to news reports.
Abdelfattah attended a hearing in February 18, 2020 in which prosecutors renewed his detention by 45 days, Seif told CPJ in September 2020. Over the next four months, prosecutors repeatedly extended Abdelfattah’s detention without the journalist or his lawyer present, due to a court slowdown because of the COVD-19 pandemic, Seif said. On July 27, 2020, Abdelfattah was back in court for another hearing, during which prosecutors extended his detention by 45 days, Seif said, adding that authorities have not brought additional charges against Abdelfattah in the past year.
On November 19, a Cairo criminal court placed Abdelfattah on the country’s “terrorism list,” according to news reports. Under Egypt’s counterterrorism law, approved by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in August 2015, individuals on the list are banned, for five years, from traveling, renewing passports, and working in the public sector. They are also subject to an asset freeze.
On March 10, the Ministry of Interior banned visitors, including family members and lawyers, from entering prisons as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19; since August 22, visitors have been allowed on a limited basis, according to news reports. After the ban was lifted, Abdelfattah’s mother Laila Soueif visited the journalist on September 1 and found that Abdelfattah’s health was stable, Seif said.
On June 22, before visits were allowed, Abdelfattah’s mother and two sisters were waiting outside the prison for a letter from Abdelfattah when several unidentified women beat them, according to Seif. The next day, one of the sisters, Sanaa Seif, went to the prosecutor general’s office to report on the incident and was arrested according to news reports; on June 24 prosecutors charged her with spreading false news, misusing social media, inciting terrorist acts, and using social media to incite such acts, according to an August 9 Facebook post by Sanaa Seif’s lawyer Khaled Ali. On August 9, prosecutors added charges of insulting a police officer verbally and via social media, according to the post. As of October 2020, Sanaa Seif is detained in Al-Qanatir prison, according to a Facebook post by Mona Seif.
The Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police, the prison system, and the prosecutor general’s office did not answer CPJ’s emails requesting comment on Abdelfattah’s case in September 2020.