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Egypt: World-renowned actors and writers call for release of activist Sanaa Seif

The 26-year-old human rights defender and her detained brother were among the icons of the 2011 Egyptian revolution
Sanaa Seif has been in pretrial detention since June (AFP)

More than 200 people - including Hollywood actors Danny Glover, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Thandie Newton - signed a statement calling on Egypt to release activist Sanaa Seif, who has been held in pretrial detention in Cairo since June. 

Renowned writers Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Nobel Literature laureate JM Coetzee also signed the letter. 

“The solidarity of the international community is needed now more than ever at this time of unprecedented breakdown of accountability,” a statement by the signatories read. 

“Together, we call on the Egyptian authorities to immediately release Sanaa, Alaa and all those detained for peacefully exercising their rights.”

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Seif, a prominent activist and film editor, was abducted from outside the prosecutor-general's office in Cairo on 23 June as she was seeking to lodge an official complaint about being attacked the previous day while camping outside Tora prison, where her brother Alaa Abdel Fattah is held. 

The 26-year-old activist has since been placed in pretrial detention on charges of "spreading false news", "inciting terrorist crimes" and "misuse of social media". 

Seif worked on several well-known films, including the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square and award-winning film In the Last Days of the City

The letter denounced Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for overseeing “a seemingly unending series of arrests”.

“Tens of thousands of politically motivated detentions have been documented by human rights organisations; at least 16 new prisons have been built in the Sisi era,” the statement added. 

Seif had previously been detained on two other occasions under Sisi. She was first detained from June 2014 to September 2015 for taking part in "unlawful protests", and was held for another six months in 2016 on charges of "insulting the judiciary".

Sanaa Seif
A mural of Sanaa Seif in Rome, painted by Ammar Abo Bakr in 2015 (MEE/Giovanni Piazzese)

Seif and her family have been among the most well-known Arab Spring activists in Egypt since the revolution that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. 

Her brother Abdel Fattah, 38, was jailed on charges of protesting without permission in 2013 and had been granted conditional release in March 2019.

The terms of his parole have dictated that he must spend every night in a cell in his local police station, where he was arrested once again in September.

His mother Laila Soueif, along with his aunt Ahdaf Soueif and sisters Sanaa and Mona, had been advocating for his release and protesting to receive letters from him since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Egypt in February.

Authorities have imposed a ban on family visits in prisons since then, prompting Abdel Fattah’s family to hold several protests to demand the right to freely correspond with him through letters.

A day before Seif’s arrest, she suffered an injury to the head when she and her sister were attacked by a group of plainclothes women who took instruction from the prison guards and policemen. 

Human Rights Watch has estimated that more than 60,000 political prisoners are languishing in Egyptian jails since Sisi came to power in 2014. 

Sisi has routinely jailed critics, including secular and Muslim Brotherhood politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders. Hundreds have died in custody due to medical negligence or other poor detention conditions.