COP27: Nobel Prize winners demand Egypt free political prisoners

More than a dozen Nobel Literature laureates have called on world leaders to pressure the COP27 International Climate Conference host, Egypt, to free the “thousands” of political prisoners languishing in the country’s prisons, including prominent jailed Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah.

In the letter, sent to the United Nations, the European Council, and heads of state in France, the United Kingdom, the United States and France among others, the 15 Nobel laureates urged the leaders “to use every opportunity” during the conference “to bring the voices of the unjustly imprisoned into the room”.

COP27, which is organised by the UN, will be held in the Egyptian Red Sea city of Sharm el-Sheikh from November 6 to 18, with the aim of bringing governments together to accelerate efforts to curb the world’s climate crisis.

“We urge you to use the opportunity that is now in your hands to help those most vulnerable, not just to the rising seas, but those imprisoned and forgotten – specifically in the very country that has the privilege of hosting you,” the laureates, who include the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, the American poet Louise Gluck, the Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, and the British author Kazuo Ishiguro, said.

“We ask you to use your plenary address to speak the names of the imprisoned, to call for their freedom, and to invite Egypt to turn a page and become a true partner in a different future: a future that respects human life and dignity,” they added.

Egypt has cracked down on dissent ahead of COP27, with an Indian environmental activist released on Monday after he had been detained the previous day.

Public protests are effectively banned in Egypt, following a crackdown on political dissent that began with the overthrow of the country’s first democratically elected leader Mohamed Morsi in 2013 by then-army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

El-Sisi, who was elected president in 2014, says security measures were needed to stabilise Egypt. The crackdown swept up liberal activists as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi died in 2019 while in government custody.

Ahead of the summit, Egyptian security forces have arrested nearly 70 people in connection with calls for protests to coincide with the gathering, according to a rights group.

By Monday, at least 67 people had been arrested in Cairo and other cities over the previous few days and had appeared in front of state security prosecution in relation to calls for protests on November 11, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), a non-government organisation.

“We ask you, in your address, to bring the voices of the unjustly imprisoned into the room. Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s powerful voice for democracy is close to being extinguished,” the laureates, who are the winners of what is arguably the most prestigious award in literature, said.

Abd el-Fattah has begun a full hunger strike ahead of the climate summit, with supporters saying he will either be dead or free when world leaders convene next week.

The activist said in a letter to his family that he would start a zero-calorie hunger strike on Tuesday and stop drinking water from November 6, when global climate talks are set to kick off. For months, the influential 40-year-old blogger has been on a partial hunger strike, consuming only 100 calories a day, prompting concerns for his health.

Abd el-Fattah, an outspoken dissident, rose to prominence with the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East and toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak Egypt.

He was first sentenced in 2014 after being convicted of taking part in an unauthorised protest and allegedly assaulting a police officer. He was released in 2019 after serving a five-year term but was rearrested later that year in a crackdown that followed rare anti-government protests.

In December 2021, he was sentenced to another five-year term on charges of spreading false news. He also faces separate charges of misusing social media and joining a “terrorist” group – a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which authorities declared a “terrorist organisation” in 2013.

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