Egypt has released over 4,000 prisoners on Sinai Liberation Day suggesting it has bowed to pressure to ease overcrowding in case COVID-19 hits prisons.
On Saturday the state-run media announced that 3,778 prisoners had been pardoned and 233 conditionally released, a far higher figure than usual. On the same day last year, 67 were pardoned.
Since the start of the pandemic rights groups have called on the government to immediately and unconditionally release activists and human rights defenders detained for peacefully expressing their views.
Egypt’s prisons are known for being overcrowded with poor health care and sanitation which will exacerbate the spread of the virus if it hits the jails.
Governments across the world, including in Iran and Bahrain, have released prisoners to prevent overcrowding.
Egypt’s government made no mention of the virus when it announced its decision, only that those who had served over half their sentence or 15 years of a life sentence were included on the list.
Detainees convicted of national security, terror charges, or accused of protest law violations were not scheduled for release, which includes the majority of Egypt’s 60,000 political prisoners.
Back in March, 15 prominent political opponents accused of spreading false news and joining a banned group were released from prison though no reason was given.
Among the released were professor of political sciences at Cairo University Hassan Nafaa, former member of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s 2014 presidential electoral campaign turned critic Hazem Abdul Azim, and a doctor and pro-democracy protester Shadi Ghazali Harb.
All three were on pretrial detention – around 25,000-30,000 political prisoners are currently on remand – and at the time, some believed this was a positive step that would pave the way for the release of all prisoners held on remand, however, this was not the case.
One week ago, 13 detained members of the Hope Alliance case, including Egypt’s BDS coordinator Ramy Shaath and former parliamentarian Ziad Al-Alimi, were added to the “terror list” as a further, punitive measure against them.
The regime has carried out an arrest campaign in the lead up to Ramadan including forcibly disappearing the activist and mother of a two-year-old, Marwa Arafa, a female researcher at Alexandria Library who is not involved in politics, and a Cairo University student supposedly on charges of debauchery after she posted a video on TikTok which went viral.