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Egyptian blogger, imprisoned and hungry, is steadfast in his protest of regime

By Shahira Amin, for CNN
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Thu October 6, 2011
Egyptian protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square in September, to express anger over the military rulers' handling of the transition.
Egyptian protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square in September, to express anger over the military rulers' handling of the transition.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad is on a hunger strike in an Egyptian prison
  • He was arrested in March, accused of "insulting the military" and spreading false information
  • He'd said military gave virginity tests to protesters in Tahrir Square, which it later admitted
  • Rights groups are protesting Sanad's imprisonment, and he continues protest as health fails

(CNN) -- Time is running out for imprisoned Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad. He has been on a hunger strike since August 23 to protest his confinement for comments he made about the military on Facebook and in his blog.

Sanad's family fears he may not survive until his appeal hearing next week. The hearing had originally been scheduled for October 4, the 43rd day of his hunger strike, but was adjourned until October 11 after a judge said that documents were "missing from the courtroom."

Sanad's lawyer Negad el Borei said he believes the postponement is intentionally signaling "a possible lack of interest in saving Maikel's life." The case raises questions about how things have really changed in Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak was forced out by pro-democracy protesters nearly eight months ago.

Sanad, 26, was arrested on March 28 on charges of "insulting the military establishment and spreading false information about the military." He had accused the military of conducting virginity tests on female protesters in Tahrir Square -- a charge that a senior military general later admitted was true.

Sanad had also called for an end to military conscription, suggesting that military service should be by choice rather than compulsory. Gen. Ismail Etman, head of the Morale Affairs Department of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said in a live TV broadcast in April (at the time of the military court ruling against Sanad) that Sanad had used "inappropriate language" to defame the military.

The SCAF is the interim military authority that took over power after Mubarak was forced out in mass uprisings this year. It is made up of senior military generals who have promised to make a successful transition to democracy.

After his arrest, Sanad was taken to the notorious Hikestep military prison camp on the outskirts of Cairo, where he says he was beaten and suffered ill treatment at the hands of military officers and guards. Two weeks later, he was sentenced by a military tribunal to three years in prison and was transferred to El Marg civilian prison in Qalubeya governorate, north of Cairo, where he has since languished in near-solitary confinement.

Protest from rights groups

Sanad is the first prisoner of conscience in post-revolutionary Egypt. His imprisonment has provoked an outcry from prominent rights groups such as Amnesty International, PEN International, Reporters Without Borders and others. They've all called for his release and urged the military rulers controlling the country in the transitional phase to show a "commitment to human rights, justice and democracy."

Human Rights Watch has said that Sanad's harsh prison sentence "may be the worst strike against free expression in Egypt" since the 2007 jailing of blogger Karim Amer for four years under Mubarak. It added that Sanad's trial has "serious implications for freedom of expression on the internet more generally, and in particular the ability to expose military abuses."

According to an April statement released by Human Rights Watch, the imprisonment of Sanad "comes at a time when the Egyptian military is drawing very restrictive red lines around permissible speech."

Indeed, several journalists and bloggers have been summoned for investigation by the military prosecutor in recent months, a move that threatens to intimidate other journalists. Moreover, the Morale Affairs Department of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces must approve any material about the military before it is published or televised. The offices of Al Jazeera Mubasher, an affiliate to Al Jazeera International, have twice been ransacked by security forces in the past month, and Minister of Information Osama Heikal has issued stern warnings to TV channels against any kind of "incitement."

Amnesty International, meanwhile, has said that Sanad's "dire predicament highlights the ongoing abuses faced by prisoners of conscience in Egypt . Civilians should never face trial before military courts, which are fundamentally unfair."

Sanad's younger brother Mark fully agrees. He says that "eyewitnesses were barred from testifying in the case" and insists that little has changed in Egypt since the mass uprisings in January. Speaking to CNN after visiting his brother at El Marg prison Saturday, he made an impassioned plea to military authorities not to allow his brother to die in prison.

"There cannot be another Khaled Saeed. Our revolution was sparked by Saeed's brutal killing by police officers. There cannot be others losing their lives in similar fashion in post-revolutionary Egypt."

Saeed was the young Alexandrian middle-class businessman who was allegedly beaten to death by two policemen last summer after he posted an Internet video showing policemen allegedly sharing the spoils of a drug bust.

Disturbing images of Saeed, 28, posted on Facebook -- his face disfigured beyond recognition -- are widely believed to be the spark for the revolution of which he became a symbol.

Since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed power in February, more than 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts and sentenced to prison terms of at least one year, according to human rights activist Mona Seif. It is unknown how many remain in detention.

Demonstrations continue

At a demonstration Tuesday outside the military court in the 10th district of Nasr City, where Sanad's appeal hearing was to have taken place, there were skirmishes between protesters and military police. Witnesses said that two protesters were arrested and that journalists covering the protest were assaulted and had their equipment seized. In recent weeks, military police and security forces have repeatedly used brutal force to break up peaceful rallies demanding a faster pace of reforms by the interim government.

Members of the ruling SCAF have said that such protests are counterproductive and have revived the emergency law, which allows for the arbitrary arrest and detention of citizens without charge, insisting this was "necessary to restore order and stability." Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, an SCAF spokesman, warned in a recent TV appearance that those who disrupt public order will be dealt with firmly.

At the so-called million people's marches held on successive Fridays in Tahrir Square, protesters' demands have included an end to the emergency law that they say stifles civil liberties, an end to military tribunals for civilians and an end to military rule in the transitional phase. Last Friday's rally, called to "reclaim the revolution," again ended with police and military forces forcibly evicting holdover protesters who attempted to camp out in Tahrir Square, according to eyewitnesses.

In the latest crackdown on protests, military police Tuesday fired shots into the air to disperse about 400 Coptic demonstrators who had attempted to stage a sit-in in front of the state television building after marching through the streets of Cairo.

It is clear that the military's patience is wearing thin with the continued strikes and protests, which some Egyptians complain are disrupting their work and driving the economy to ruins. Others, however, are deeply concerned about the violent crackdown on civil liberties and say this does not augur well for democracy in the new Egypt. El Borei, Sanad's lawyer, says the restrictive atmosphere is "worse than it was under Mubarak. The media had never during the Mubarak era condoned torture the way it has in recent days." he tells CNN.

Declining health

Meanwhile, Sanad's health has fast deteriorated in recent weeks. He now suffers from ailments including low blood pressure, a low sugar level and scabies. Accompanying his family on a visit to El Marg prison on October 1 -- Sanad's 26th birthday -- I find it hard not to grimace at the sight of his skeletal physique. Looking pale and drawn, he is unable to stand without support, and his faint voice is almost inaudible as he speaks. But he is not without resolve as he defiantly announces that if he were to die, scores of people like him would emerge to take his place.

"I have already won many converts," he says confidently." My brother, friends and father have all become politicized."

Nabil Sanad, his father, shakes his head in disapproval and quickly denies that he shares Maikel's religious beliefs, for Maikel is a self-declared atheist and liberal.

"We are a pious Coptic family," he tells me "Maikel turned his back on religion as a result of peer pressure some years ago. He associated with the wrong crowd at university, and that's where it has led him."

Maikel's unconventional views on religion and politics expressed in his blog have earned him admiration and ire. In a conservative society where religion shapes people's lives, it is not surprising that Sanad does not have a large following within his native Egypt. His comments expressing admiration for "Israeli democracy and freedom of expression" and calling for normalization with Israel have not gone down well with many fellow Egyptians, including activists who have been calling for the annulment of the 1979 Camp David Peace Treaty and who, last month, attempted to storm the Israeli Embassy in Giza. But Sanad tells me that he is "pro-peace rather than pro-Israel."

"Our government conducts business with Israel, so why can't the people (from both countries) deal with each other?" is his explanation.

At a time of rising anti-Israeli sentiment after several Egyptian border guards were killed by Israeli security forces near the Israeli border in August, it's a view that's won Sanad much contempt and is possibly the reason why he has not been afforded much local sympathy. In contrast, a Free Maikel Nabil page on Facebook has attracted more than 61,400 supporters internationally, and his fans have been growing steadily in number in recent weeks.

Besides stirring controversy, Sanad's blog posts have fueled already inflamed sentiment beyond and inside the prison compound. He complains of maltreatment from fellow inmates, especially after prison guards spread rumors that he wants Israel to prolong its occupation of Palestinian land and that he is a staunch supporter of gay rights. The guards have warned other inmates not to talk to Sanad and, on more than one occasion, have beaten those who defied the order, he said.

The price of activism

His refusal to go with the flow comes with a heavy price: Not only is he serving prison time and losing his health and vitality, but he also risks death soon as his hunger strike enters its 45th day Thursday. But he is adamant not to end the strike, insisting that he would "rather die than live as a slave without dignity under an oppressive regime." He has survived on nothing more than water and a few sips of fruit juice since starting his strike, and he has vowed to stop drinking altogether if his sentence is not revoked soon.

As Sanad's condition enters a critical phase, his supporters and pro-democracy activists are wondering whether the interim military rulers are truly willing to break away from an oppressive past and make a success of the transitional phase to democracy. The continued detention of activists, the torture of victims by the military and the restrictive media atmosphere have many worried about the future.

Rights activists continue to issue reminders that "State institutions, including the military, should never consider themselves above criticism. It is only through a public airing of abuses and full accountability measures that Egypt can hope to transition away from past human rights violations."

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