It has been 14 months since journalist Sulafa Magdy and her husband, photographer Hussam Al-Sayyad, were arrested. During this time, their son Khaled (8) has sent them seven video messages, asking them to drop whatever they are doing and come back home.
Sulafa, Hussam, as well as journalist Mohamed Salah, were arrested on November 26, 2019, in Cairo’s Dokki district. The prosecution accused them of being part of a terrorist group and spreading fake news, a classic charge the Egyptian regime uses to imprison journalists and activists.
Sulafa’s defense team on January 30, 2021, filed seven complaints against Egyptian security officers and prison personnel accusing them of assault, cruelty and harassment.
“At about 11 pm on November 29, 2020, three female prisoners came to my cell and took me outside the ward to a room where someone whom I didn’t recognize blindfolded me,” Sulafa told the court at the hearing on her detention’s renewal. “He told me he would get me out if I’d do everything he asked me to and answer all his questions.”
According to Sulafa, the man harassed her and wanted her to work as an informant. When she turned down the offer, he threatened to harm her husband and son.
Sulafa also said that she was abused and assaulted while being searched on January 19, 2021, and forced to undergo a hysteroscopy, after which she severely bled, having previously undergone a surgery to remove a uterine tumor.
The defense team’s reports quoted Sulafa’s mother who stated her daughter seemed extremely exhausted and suffered a hemorrhage when she visited her in prison on January 27, 2021.
All accusations were denied by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, which in a statement described the reports as “terrorist Brotherhood propaganda” in an attempt to link Sulafa to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
A member of Sulafa and Hossam’s defense team, human rights lawyer Khaled Ali demanded an investigation into the incidents. According to him, Sulafa needs to undergo a forensic examination into her repeated uterine hemorrhages.
Ali told Daraj that the defense team had submitted several requests to the court and public prosecutor to release one of the parents for the sake of their child. Article 488 of the Criminal Code states that if both the parents of a child under the age of 15 years were to be imprisoned, the court can delay the imprisonment of one of them, so the other can take care of the child. So far, the requests remain unanswered.
Their Son is Still Waiting
Sulafa decided to tell her son, for the sake of his mental health, that she and his father had gone on a business trip. The child is still unaware that his parents are in pretrial detention, just a few hours away from him.
Since their arrest, Khaled has not stopped writing and sending them video messages
Sulafa decided to tell her son that she and his father had gone on a business trip. The child is still unaware that they are in jail, just a few hours away from him.
Taghreed Zahran, his grandmother, did what Sulafa had asked her and hid the truth from the boy. But Khaled never stopped asking his grandmother to give him the date on which his parents were to return.
“The child doesn’t quite understand what’s happening because even when his parents used to go on a business trip, they wouldn’t stop calling him,” Zahran told Daraj. “I keep telling him there’s no Internet in their work place, and that the airports are closed because of the pandemic, that’s why they can’t return. My lie keeps growing and I don’t know when it will end.”
Sulafa is unable to listen to Khaled’s video messages that have now gone viral on social media, but her mother tells her all about them during her monthly visit, which never exceeds 15 minutes.
All Sulafa could do is write a quick message on a paper, which she decorated with green stars, saying: “I am sorry, my love, that we’re not next to you, but we are working to ensure you a good life, and once we come back we will buy you all the toys you want.”
Born from the Revolution
Sulafa met Hussam in Alexandria in 2010, during the protests against the security forces’ killing of young Khaled Saeed, which proved the spark of Egypt’s Arab Spring moment on January 25 of that year.
The couple got married on October 2, 2012.
On February 14, 2020, Sulafa sent a letter requesting to see her husband.
“80 days have passed and I have not yet seen my husband, my beloved and my companion Hussam,” she wrote. “During these 80 days, it was decided that we should be separated. Each day I struggle to forget how the security personnel dragged him away after handcuffing and blindfolding him, before they did the same to me.”
On August 30, 2020, the Supreme State Security Prosecution decided to rotate Sulafa’s term based on a new case (number 855/ 2020), which consisted of exactly the same accusations as the previous case against her. According to her lawyer Khaled Ali, Sulafa did not say a word when this happened.
The Egyptian authorities have long been accused of “rotating” cases against people they consider political opponents in order to extend their detention periods. The term “rotation” refers to delaying a decision to release a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience. Usually, after the release procedures have started, the detainee is suddenly accused of a new case, which mostly contains the same charges, but could also contain new ones.
The detainee may enjoy his/her freedom for a few days or months before he/she is re-arrested and imprisoned again. The second time the detainee may not be released ever again, not even for an hour.
There is no official statistic regarding the cases that have been rotated, but there are at least dozens. The escalating phenomenon began with well-known political prisoners and activists, such as Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Ahmed Douma, Shadi Abu Zeid, Muhammad Adel and Sherif Al-Ruby. Many human rights organizations have criticized these rotations and consider them fabricated cases aimed at keeping these activists and dissidents in prison for as long as possible.
“I keep telling him [Khaled] that there’s no Internet in their work place and that the airports are closed because of the pandemic, and that’s why they can’t return. My lie keeps growing and I don’t know when it will end.”
Amnesty International issued the report What Do I Care If You Die? The Negligence and Denial of Health Care in Egyptian Prisons ten years after the 2011 revolution. The report highlights the bleak reality of Egyptian prisons, which the government of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has filled with tens of thousands of men and women considered a threat.
Amnesty International investigated the deaths of 12 people who died during their detention or shortly after their release. The organization also reported the deaths of 37 others while in prison in 2020 due to negligence. However, the organization was unable to obtain their families’ consent to publish their stories out of fear for reprisals. According to Egyptian human rights groups, hundreds of people have died in detention centers since 2013, while the authorities refuse to disclose any information about the numbers of deaths, nor to conduct or allow any thorough and impartial investigations into them.
400 days of Prison and Counting
It has been more than 400 days since the detention of Sulafa and Hussam.Sulafa’s mother has pointed out that her daughter is in danger and has been bleeding since last August, yet the prison administration refuses her to see a doctor or to go out for a medical examination.
“I hope that the sacrifice we are making will ensure the freedom for everyone who deserves it,” Sulafa wrote in a letter published last year. “Being a journalist defending the freedom of the press is not a conviction. Yes, being imprisoned is no luxury. But it will never break us. I am proud to be a free journalist and a political prisoner, and we will always love this country despite this prison and its warden.”
This article was translated from Arabic to English by Fatima Jaber.