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Egypt’s detention and arrest of several activists – including prominent Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif – demonstrates that the Egyptian government is more concerned with its reputation than the rights of its citizens, including their freedom of expression and right to information, PEN International said today in a joint statement alongside PEN America and English PEN. Soueif and several others were arrested during a protest calling for the release of detainees in order to curb the spread of coronavirus in Egyptian prisons.
On March 18, 2020, Ahdaf Soueif protested in front of the Cabinet of Egypt, alongside academic Rabab al-Mahdi, Soueif’s sister and academic Leila Soueif, and her niece, activist Mona Soueif. Mona Soueif live streamed the protest on Facebook, recording a confrontation with police officers who reportedly asked them to stop and “discuss the matter” at a police station. Their phones were then apparently confiscated and turned off. According to human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, the group was detained at Qasr el-Nil police station in central Cairo. Later, according to one family member, the four were transferred out of the station in a police vehicle, and are now facing charges of illegal assembly, unlawful protest, and blocking traffic.
“The arrest of Ahdaf Soueif and her family is an egregious attack on free expression and shows the Egyptian government’s reflexive response to the coronavirus pandemic is to silence dissident voices to protect the state’s national image, disregarding both public health and fundamental rights,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “Ahdaf Soueif and her family have every right to protest government policies that put countless individuals at risk. Cairo authorities should release these activists, immediately. While the world focuses on the spread of COVID-19, Egypt’s government is bullying foreign reporters and arresting human rights defenders who protest. Clearly, they are hoping their thuggish behaviour will go unnoticed during this fearful time; it hasn’t. We call on the international community to push back against Egypt’s efforts to suppress freedom of expression under the cover of the coronavirus threat.”
Prison visits in Egypt have been suspended for ten days in response to the pandemic, prompting worry from families of detainees. Soueif’s own nephew, blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who previously served six years in prison for violating Egypt’s protest law, has been detained since September.
Freedom of expression in Egypt has deteriorated dramatically over the past seven years under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rule. Since the coronavirus outbreak, the right to protest and press freedom are especially at risk. On Monday, Egypt revoked the license of a correspondent for The Guardian and threatened to revoke the paper’s permit to operate in the country, after the outlet published a report suggesting that the number of cases in Egypt is higher than reported. The government also released a statement accusing The New York Times’s Cairo bureau chief Declan Walsh of “professional violations,” following tweets in which he implied that the reported number of COVID-19 cases in Egypt is an underestimate.
“Egypt’s government should rise to the role it is expected to play as a government and immediately release Ahdaf Soueif and others, who were peacefully calling for the release of prisoners in jail, to prevent their exposure to #coronavirus. Jailing writers who speak truth to power is an old authoritarian trick; Egypt must walk back from that path,” said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
PEN International is deeply concerned by the ongoing prosecution of poet and PEN member, Saw Wai, who stands accused of defaming the military under Section 505(a) of the Penal Code, after speaking at an event in Kaw Thaung township, in the Tanintharyi region of Southwestern Myanmar. If convicted, he could face up to two years in prison. PEN International believes that Saw Wai is being targeted solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and calls for the charges against him to be dropped.
TAKE ACTION! Please send appeals:
- Calling on the Myanmar authorities to drop the charges laid against Saw Wai immediately and unconditionally
- Calling for all laws that impose unlawful restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in Myanmar to be repealed or amended in line with international human rights standards
- Urging the immediate ratification of international human rights treaties to which Myanmar is not yet a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
Send appeals to:
U Win Myint
President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Chief Justice of the Union
U Htun Htun Oo
The Supreme Court of the Union
Email: scunion [at] mptmail.net [dot] mm
Minister of Home Affairs
Lt. Gen. Soe Htut
Ministry of Home Affairs Office No. 10
Nay Pyi Taw
Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Fax: +95 67 412439
Email: mohamyanmar [at] gmail [dot] com
Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing
Chairperson of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission
U Hla Myint
No. 27, Pyay Road
Email: info [at] mnhrc.org [dot] mm
Botschaft von Myanmar in Deutschland
Botschaft der Republik der Union Myanmar
Background (provided by PEN International)
Saw Win, who uses the pen name Saw Wai, is a renowned Myanmar poet, writer and performance artist, and board member of PEN Myanmar.
On 17 October 2019, a lieutenant colonel in Kaw Thaung township, in the Tanintharyi region of Southwestern Myanmar, filed charges against Saw Wai, along with two other activists – one of whom is already serving a one-year prison term – alleging that they had violated Section 505(a) of the Penal Code, which prohibits the circulation of statements and reports with “intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty.”
The charges came after Saw Wai and his co-accused spoke during a rally in the township. According to PEN Myanmar, Saw Wai advocated in support of the Union of Myanmar Constitutional Amendment Joint Committee, which was formed in February 2019. Amnesty International has indicated that Saw Wai had recited a poem, asking the audience to chant “reject evil laws.”
According to reports, the Kawthaung Township Court accepted the military’s case on 31 October 2019 and court proceedings began on 20 January 2020. A court in Tanintharyi region reportedlyissued a warrant for Saw Wai’s arrest after he failed to appear in court; he and his co-accused argued that they had not received a summons.
Saw Wai was granted bail on medical grounds at the subsequent hearing held on 3 February. At a hearing on 3 March, the court granted Saw Wai’s request to move the location of proceedings to Dawei city, the capital of Tanitharyi region (only 621 kilometres from Yangon) from Kaw Thaung township (almost 1,300 kilometres from Yangon). The court agreed that he would not need to be present at every hearing. If convicted, he could face up to two years in prison.
Saw Wai has long advocated for freedom of expression in Myanmar. In 2008, he was awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Freedom of Expression in recognition of his commitment despite the personal risks he faced. At the time of the award, he was serving a two-year prison sentence in connection with a poem critical of the authorities. Entitled, ‘February the Fourteenth’ and published in the Yangon-based weekly magazine Love Journal, Saw Wai’s poem was shaped as a love poem which cryptically criticised the then head of Myanmar’s ruling military junta, General Than Shwe. Saw Wai was released in May 2010, almost four months after the expiry of his two-year sentence.
Freedom of expression in Myanmar
Over four years after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government took power, little has been seen in terms of progress in instituting political reforms. The Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, still holds considerable political sway despite the judgement of UN Fact-finding missions that they are responsible for grave human rights abuses. According to media reports, the number of attempts made by members of the military to sue individuals deemed to have defamed the military, particularly those supporting amendments to the Constitution, has risen since April 2019.
The complete Statement from PEN International can be found here.