Before she was arrested Somaya Nasef spent her time walking the streets of Cairo looking for medicine to administer to street children.
Essential drugs like insulin and penicillin have been disappearing from pharmacy shelves for years due to the turbulent economy, a crisis exacerbated when Egypt floated the pound in 2016.
Despite the difficulty, Somaya would not give up until she found what she was looking for, recalls her husband Ramy, no matter how hard it was.
“Somaya was not only a human rights activist but a voice for all the oppressed, a voice for everyone in need. She always sought to look after other people,” Ramy says.
“She was always happy when helping others. She spent her entire day serving others. She visited patients in hospitals just to make them happy.”
Whilst Somaya quickly earnt the title “the ambassador of the poor” among her supporters, her charity work had not escaped the attention of the authorities.
In November 2018 she was on her way home from her sister’s house when she was stopped at a checkpoint. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was one of 31 other Egyptians arrested that week as authorities widened their net on dissenting voices.
A few hours later policemen broke into her home and the house of her father, searched their belongings and interrogated her parents.
Somaya was forcibly disappeared for 27 days before emerging in the security ward of Al-Qanater women’s prison, which is notorious for its squalid conditions. Within its walls 1,000 inmates languish, more than double its capacity, and inmates are regularly beaten and assaulted.
“Her cell is a room that does not exceed 20 square metres,” describes Ramy. “There are seven women in one cell and there are no beds. The drinking water is polluted, which has negatively affected her health and brought in insects and snakes. There is no air inside.”
“The Egyptian regime treats female prisoners very badly. They forbid them from seeing their children. They are denied visits, detained in very poor conditions. They are not given fair trials, even though they have not committed any crime.”
Ramy has not seen his wife since she was imprisoned but has heard about the conditions of her detention through her lawyer. Her mother, who still lives in Egypt, has been allowed to see her for ten minutes on two occasions. The family has not been offered an explanation as to why visits are prohibited.
Many prisoners have complained that they have been prevented from seeing their families, a widespread punitive measure put in place by the current regime that has worsened over the last few weeks.
When former President Mohamed Morsi died during a court session on 17 June the Interior Ministry banned all visits to deflect international condemnation of Egypt’s prison conditions, which swelled after Morsi collapsed.
In May, the family treated news that Somaya would be released with cautious optimism – after seven months they had been told she was finally coming home.
As soon as she had signed her discharge papers, Somaya was arrested on another charge and returned to prison.
“We do not know why the Egyptian authorities did this,” says Ramy. “The odd thing is that the new case has the same charges as the first case.”
Ramy Darwish, 35, and Somaya Nasef, 36, met at school and have been married for 13 years. Ramy works as an accountant in Qatar and Somaya’s family residence allowed her to go back and forth, so they spent the last five years moving between Cairo and Doha.
Ramy, who is now in Qatar, hopes that Somaya will be able to join him soon but even if Somaya is acquitted there is no guarantee the couple will be reunited: “If she [is] released under condition, as she was in the first case, she will not be allowed to leave the country.”