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One year of unjust detainment in Egypt: Yara Sallam’s mom says prison hasn’t changed her ‘rights’ defending’ daughter

Nelly Bassily

Yara Sallam

No mother ever wants to see her child in prison but Rawia Sadek is not letting her daughter Yara Sallam’s incarceration bring her down.

For the past year, Sadek has tried to not let the multiple security checks inside the jail, the uncomfortable waiting-time in the visiting room, or the fact that her daughter is even being called an inmate ruin the precious hour-long visits she gets to have with her daughter. For the past year, Sadek has been writing about Yara and all unjustly detained prisoners in Egypt via social media and posting photos of her daughter along with the hashtag #FreeYara.

Yara Sallam is a 29-year-old women’s human rights defender from Egypt. Before her unjust detainment, she was a transitional justice researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).  On June 21, 2014, twenty-three young activists, among them Yara and 6 other young women, were arrested for protesting against a draconian anti-protest law.

The law was introduced in 2013 to prevent anyone from protesting without permission from the government. Ironically, Egyptian President Abel Al Fattah el Sisi’s current government wouldn’t be in power if brave and defiant young Egyptians hadn’t taken to the streets in protest to oust then President Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011.   

Yara, as it turns out, wasn’t actually taking part in the unsanctioned protest when she was arrested on June 21. In fact, she was with her cousin, buying a water bottle inside a shop when they were arrested. Authorities released her cousin but after police discovered that Yara worked with EIPR, she was referred to the prosecutor.

Yara and the 22 others activists who were arrested on that day have now completed one year of their 2-year sentences. An Egyptian Appeal’s court judgment handed-down in December 2014 stipulates that their two-year sentences will also be followed by two years of police surveillance.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organization Against Torture. Last December, the Observatory said in a statement that it considers that these activists are languishing in jail “solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly” and that their arbitrary detention and sentencing “only aim to sanction their legitimate human rights activities.”

 “Yara is an honest person, and she was raised to do the right thing and everything she does, she does with passion. She cares not only about herself but is always thinking about others in everything she does.” That’s how Sadek lovingly describes her daughter.  Being a lawyer isn’t just a career Yara chose – it’s a calling.  Sadek remembers: “I used to tell Yara ‘you’re a lawyer’ but she would reply ‘No mum, I’m a rights defender.’ Even when she was just 14 years old, she was involved in an organization that defends children’s rights.”  

Yara and 5 of the young women detainees who were arrested on June 21 share a cell inside Qanater Women’s prison, 19-kilometers North of Cairo. When Sadek visited with Yara on June 9, Yara was feeling good that day. “Of course, there are times when she’s not happy, and not feeling good about her situation. But this time, she was happy and laughing,” she says.

At first, Yara’s mom was afraid for her. Sadek knows cases of abuse are rampant at the hands of state security forces and in Egyptian prisons. She feared that they would treat her badly or sexually abuse her in prison but thankfully Yara confirmed that none of that happened to her.  

Still, losing one’s freedom without justifiable cause is not easy but Yara is strong. Yara once wrote in a letter from prison to her mom: "I do not feel any regret or self-defeat, the prison is not inside me.”

Much like Mahienour El Masry, a well-known political activist who is currently detained in Alexandria, Yara is trying to make her time in jail meaningful. For example, Sadek says that when a group of human rights defenders visited Qanater prison, Yara and Sanaa Seif (another well-known young activist who campaigned against military trials for civilians in Egypt) insisted on bringing attention to the case of a young woman who has been unjustly placed in solitary confinement. Yara and Sanaa also complained about the overcrowding in the prison.

When a prison warden asked Yara if they were treating her well, she told him that she was treated fine but that others were not. “That says everything about Yara and about how she cannot stand idle in the face of injustice,” proudly says Sadek, “I can go on and on about how wonderful my daughter is.” But Sadek is not alone in her praise and appreciation of Yara.

Radwa Medhat has worked closely with Yara within the EIPR team.  Yara is not merely a colleague for Medhat, she’s a very close friend. Medhat says Yara is the most caring, thoughtful, funny, compassionate friend that anyone can have.  She says: “Yara's time in prison is by far my worst nightmare and it has been going on for nearly a year now.  It means the disappearance of a very close friend and a colleague and it's the ongoing feeling of guilt accompanying anything I do or enjoy.  It's also the ongoing question of why her not me. To me nothing makes sense without her.”

Prison hasn’t changed her

 “We don’t like prisons but we are not afraid them.” That’s a quote from Mahienour El-Masry that Sadek holds dear to her heart. That quote keeps her grounded.  Yara’s mom says a year in prison has not changed her daughter because Yara knows she did nothing wrong. She adds: “They are wrong for imprisoning her. They are the ones who don’t respect the law. The charges against her are fabricated.”

A friend of Yara’s, who was recently released from prison, jokingly told Sadek: “Prison is nice. Tell Yara she should tell the guards that prison is nice.” So, on one of her visits with Yara, Sadek said: “You know, your friend Mohamed says prison is nice.” Yara thought about it for a second and replied: “If I was outside of these prison walls, with everything that’s happening in the country, I would have felt guilty and helpless so, in that respect, maybe it’s ok that I’m in prison.”

Sadek says Yara and the other girls serving the same sentence have remained cellmates but many of the young women, who were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood for example, are treated differently. They are separated and placed in cells with other offenders.

Inside of and outside Egypt’s prison walls, injustice persists. More stories of young Egyptians getting arrested, disappearing and getting killed keep surfacing. It’s almost hard to keep track of them all. “But, they are not just numbers or random names. They all have faces, stories and feelings that we should know about. Yara says she knows people keep her story in the media but she wants all detainee stories to be just as talked about, if not more. Yara wants all those unjustly detained freed,” says Sadek.

Egyptian activists held two days of international solidarity actions with Egyptian political prisoners on June 20-21. They want to see an end to repression and worldwide-support for the various campaigns to free political prisoners in Egypt. Putting pressure on the Egyptian government to immediately stop all repression of protests, free political prisoners, stop the disappearances, have fair trials for all and put an end to abuse, torture and executions has never been more important than now.

Sadek doesn’t want her daughter or any of her cellmates to spend another second behind bars. She hopes for an early release without getting her hopes too high. She has to in order to keep going.

As Yara and others continue to serve unfair and unjustified sentences, Sadek says her daughter is grateful for all the people who have continued to stand by her, support her, talk about her and pray for her.

Those who believe in freedom in Egypt have never rested. The fight continues.   

West Asia