#FreedomFirst campaign highlights Egypt’s political prisoners ahead of Sisi-Trump meeting

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Egyptian rights campaigners in the US have been putting posters up on the streets of Washington DC to raise awareness about thousands of political prisoners in Egypt ahead of a meeting between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his American counterpart Donald Trump, scheduled for April 3.

Others have followed suit, using the trending hashtag #FreedomFirst, which has been promoted by the US-based campaigners.

The #FreedomFirst campaign has posted images of political prisoners on walls and benches across the city, particularly outside the Egyptian Embassy in Washington DC, with the name and photo of each prisoner, along with the duration of their detention.

One such notice reads, “Egyptian prisons hold thousands of dissidents, many in cruel and inhumane conditions,” while another cites a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, reading, “Egypt ranks third in the world for the number of journalists imprisoned.”

The #FreedomFirst campaign — both online and on the streets of Washington DC — has been largely organized by a young Egyptian-American citizen, Mohamed Soltan, who was himself a political prisoner in Egypt. Soltan, the son of Muslim Brotherhood leader Salah Soltan (also a political prisoner), was arrested in August 2013 and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. Following a lengthy hunger strike, coupled with US diplomatic pressure, Mohamed Soltan was eventually released in May 2015.

The Washington Post reports that Soltan’s planned advertisement campaign — which would have cost around $US 20,000 — was rejected by the Metro transport agency in the US. The Metro agency clarified that it had rejected the posting of the #FreedomFirst ads in its subway trains on the basis of its policy, which states that, “Advertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue on which there are varying opinions are prohibited.”

The webpage of the #FreedomFirst campaign posted a video response by Mohamed Soltan, who stated, “these are just facts, they’re not trying to influence anybody.”

Despite the Metro agency’s resistance to the campaign, it has been widely circulated on social media networks — both in Egypt, and in many other countries.

One user on Twitter posted an image of several Egyptian female political prisoners jailed under Sisi’s leadership. Another user tweeted that Egypt itself now resembles a large prison. Many other individuals used the #FreedomFirst hashtag to post images and comments about friends, relatives, or acquaintances who are currently imprisoned.

Rather than discussing the plight of Egypt’s political prisoners, however, the April 3 meeting between the US and Egyptian presidents is expected to focus on the threat of global terrorism and joint counter-terrorism efforts.

According to a statement from the White House’s Press Secretary this week, the meeting between Sisi and Trump will focus on “a range of bilateral and regional issues, including how to defeat the Islamic State and pursue peace and stability in the region.”

Ahead of the Trump-Sisi meeting on Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Human Rights First issued statements regarding the deteriorating condition of press freedoms in Egypt under Sisi.

The CPJ issued a statement on Thursday denouncing Egypt’s ongoing detention of at least 25 journalists and media personnel in a statement titled: “As Egypt-US relationship moves forward, jailed Egyptian journalists left behind.”

“Instead of ignoring the human rights abuses that have occurred in Egypt under Sisi, President Trump must remember that suppressing peaceful dissent and pluralism fuels grievances that are exploited by violent extremists, and is counterproductive,” read a statement issued by New York Based Human Rights First group.

This statement argued that, since his military-led takeover in July 2013, “Sisi has pursued policies that have fueled the grievances exploited by violent extremists,” citing the radicalization of Egyptian political prisoners such as Ayman al-Zawahri — leader of Al-Qaeda — and the late Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was later imprisoned in the US in light of his association with the World Trade Center bombing of 1993.

The Human Rights First statement argued that the ongoing use of torture by Sisi’s security forces served to further radicalize political prisoners. The statement also pointed to the government’s crackdown on civil society, including the closure of Al-Nadeem Center for the rehabilitation of torture victims.

“Hosting Egypt’s repressive president at the White House sends the wrong message to the world on how to overcome the scourge of violent extremism and terrorism,” the statement read. “President Trump is unlikely to challenge or criticize Sisi for any of his destructive, counterproductive polices, but he should.”

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