Activist Abd el-Fattah was near death after Egypt prison hunger strike, says family

Egyptian-British hunger striker Alaa Abd el-Fattah poses for a photo in unknown location, in this undated handout image obtained by Reuters on November 8, 2022. Courtesy of Omar Robert Hamilton/Handout via REUTERS
  • Case has hung over COP27 climate summit in Egypt
  • Family say activist was restrained in his cell
  • Authorities have called strike "questionable"

CAIRO, Egypt, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Prominent Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah was close to death when he broke his hunger strike, and needed to be revived after collapsing in a prison in Egypt, his family said after visiting him for the first time in weeks on Thursday.

Abd el-Fattah had been on full or partial hunger strike against his detention and prison conditions since April 2, then escalated his protest by ceasing to drink water on Nov. 6, the opening day of the COP27 climate summit.

The activist said in a letter earlier this week that he had ended his strike.

After speaking with him from behind a glass partition during the meeting at Wadi al-Natrun jail northwest of Cairo, the first visit in nearly a month, the family said his health had deteriorated sharply.

They said he had collapsed in the shower on Nov. 11 before falling unconscious and then being revived. "He talked about all of this as a near-death experience. This is how the hunger strike was broken," they said in a statement.

The statement said that on Nov. 8, Abd el-Fattah refused to submit to a medical examination without official recognition of his strike, so a riot squad carried him away before he fought back and was returned to his cell.

"When they put him in the cell he started to smash his head against the wall. He was restrained and tied down," the statement said.

An interior ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment. In a rare official statement on the case on Nov. 10, Egypt's public prosecution said Abd el-Fattah had undergone medical checks and his condition was good.

The statement, which Abd el-Fattah's family said was packed with inaccuracies, said his hunger strike was "questionable".

The hunger strike has loomed over the COP27 climate talks in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders raised the case with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last week.

'VOLATILE STATE'

An activist and blogger who rose to prominence in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Abd el-Fattah became a symbol for the tens of thousands of Egyptians - from liberals to Islamists - who were swept up in later crackdowns.

When he began his strike he had recently obtained British citizenship, a move his family hoped would help secure his release. British officials have pushed for a consular visit, but have not been granted one.

Abd el-Fattah's sister Sanaa Seif, who came to COP27 last week to campaign for his release and was among the relatives to visit on Thursday, said he looked very thin and had told his family he felt relieved when he was close to death.

"I thought finally this will all end," she recounted him as saying.

"He is in a very volatile state, he kept losing his train of thought," Seif told Reuters. "When I started telling him about the campaign he started to pay attention and said that he's ready to go back to the hunger strike but I told him 'no, you must rest'."

Sisi, who led the military overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected president in 2013 after huge national protests against the government, says security and stability are paramount and has denied that there are political prisoners in the country.

Abd el-Fattah's protest drew demonstrations of solidarity inside the United Nations-administered conference area at COP27.

Video footage posted on social media from a "people's plenary" of activists at the summit showed people chanting "Free Alaa, Free Them All", referring to Abd el-Fattah and other detainees.

Additional reporting by Nafisa Eltahir, Yomna Ehab; Writing by Aidan Lewis and Dominic Evans; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O'Brien

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