Egypt’s president pardons prominent activist Ahmed Douma

CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi pardoned the prominent Arab Spring activist Ahmed Douma and 30 other political prisoners on Saturday, in his latest gesture toward improving his government’s human rights record as Egypt seeks badly needed international funding.

Tarek El-Khouly, a member of parliament who sits on the presidential pardon committee, wrote on social media early Saturday afternoon that Douma was among the prisoners who would be pardoned under a decree Sisi issued on Saturday. Several hours later, videos shared on social media showed a grinning Douma outside of the prison, hugging friends and fellow activists who had gathered to greet him.

“For 10 years he was in the same place, in the same ward, welcoming new inmates and bidding farewell to others … hoping he would get released one day and be with us,” his ex-wife, Nourhan Hefzy, wrote on Facebook after his release. “Today he deserves that we all take a break to fill our hearts with joy.”

Douma led protests during Egypt’s 2011 revolution but has since spent nearly a decade behind bars. He was arrested along with two other pro-democracy activists in December 2013 for violating a restrictive protest law passed by the military-backed government that took power in a coup that summer. He was sentenced to three years in prison, before being convicted and sentenced to 15 years on separate charges in 2015, in a trial that the rights group Amnesty International called “grossly unfair and politically motivated.”

Douma was tortured and denied medical care during his detention, according to rights groups. Moved in and out of solitary confinement, he spent more than four years in isolation in total — treatment that contributed to knee and back pain, severe depression and panic attacks, Amnesty said.

Douma was previously imprisoned for his activism under the governments of former presidents Hosni Mubarak — who was deposed during the revolution — and Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president elected after the uprising.

Thirty other, less-prominent prisoners also received pardons Saturday, according to a list published on social media by Tarek El-Awady, a member of the presidential pardon committee.

Egyptian human rights defenders and former political prisoners hailed the decision to free Douma.

“Douma has not been released from prison for one day since 2013,” Mona Seif, the sister of one of Egypt’s most prominent political prisoners, Alaa Abdel Fattah, tweeted Saturday. “If there is anyone who deserves freedom it is him.”

Mostafa Al-A’sar, an Egyptian human rights defender and journalist who was imprisoned for several years, shared an old photo of Douma and him, smiling, “before prisons and detention centers.”

“May God compensate you, Douma, for the years of your life that they stole … 10 years of arrest, unjust imprisonment and solitary confinement,” he tweeted. “Freedom for all detainees.”

The latest round of pardons comes after the release of two other famous political prisoners last month. Patrick George Zaki, a human rights researcher who had been sentenced just the day before in connection with an article he wrote on the treatment of the Christian minority in Egypt, was pardoned along with the human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer ahead of a national holiday in July.

Their cases, along with Douma’s, came to symbolize the narrowing of civic space in Egypt, where Sisi has carried out a far-reaching crackdown on dissent over the past decade. Officially, the government maintains that Egypt has no political prisoners. But human rights groups and researchers estimate that tens of thousands of people — including journalists, activists and academics — have been arrested on political grounds.

In 2021, the Biden administration imposed new human-rights conditions on security aid to Egypt, ultimately deciding in early 2022 to withhold $130 million of the $1.3 billion in U.S. security assistance that Egypt receives annually.

With Egypt facing a deepening economic crisis and desperate for foreign funding, Sisi has taken steps in recent years to address international criticism of Egypt’s human rights record. The government unveiled the country’s first human rights strategy in October 2021, to mixed reviews. Sisi announced plans last year for a national dialogue billed as a forum for debate over political, economic and social reforms. And in April 2022, he reactivated the committee charged with administering presidential pardons of detainees.

Since then, more than 1,400 people have been released from pretrial detention, according to state media.

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Still, the Egyptian government continues to imprison critics — and some analysts and political opponents have called the national dialogue little more than theater.

The U.S. State Department faces a Sept. 30 deadline to decide whether to hold back any portion of the roughly $300 million of foreign military funding this year that is subject to human-rights conditions.


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