Rights advocates hailed the release of 950 former militants from the Gamaa Islamiya, a reformed Islamist group that participated in the Islamist insurgency that gripped the country in the early and mid-1990s.
“The prisoners’ release is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Montasser al-Zayyat, head of the Lawyers’ Syndicate Liberties Committee and the group’s former spokesman. “They had been kept in prison under the emergency law rather than as a result of fair trials. It’s good that the authorities decided to free them and respect their rights as unfairly detained prisoners.”
The releases have taken place gradually over the past 11 days, according to al-Zayyat, who added that approximately 2,000 former Gamaa members remain in prison. Hundreds of others have been released sporadically over recent years following a 1997 truce between the group’s leaders and the government. In the same year, Gamaa Islamiya leaders renounced violence following a deadly – and highly unpopular – attack on tourists in the Upper Egyptian city of Luxor that killed 71.
Rights lawyers said the releases represented a victory for critics of the emergency law, which has remained in place for over a quarter-century. “Their continued imprisonment was illegal,” said activist and human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam, director of the Cairo-based Hisham Mubarak Law Centre. “While the majority of those held in prison were never fairly tried or sentenced, those who were, completed their sentences years ago.”
Although subject to frequent arrests, members of the non-violent Muslim Brotherhood are treated kindly in comparison. “The way in which Brotherhood members have been treated by the authorities appears gentle in comparison to the treatment meted out to Gamaa members,” said Seif al-Islam. “Mass arrests over the past two decades targeted suspected Gamaa members along with their entire families.”
Interior ministry officials, meanwhile, refused to formally acknowledge the releases. “We have no news of the matter,” one ministry official said on condition of anonymity, despite widespread reports citing other anonymous government sources. According to al-Zayyat, the ministry’s denial stems from a policy of official silence regarding the numbers of Islamists still in detention.
Rights groups say that, in addition to the remaining 2,000 Gamaa Islamiya detainees, another 3,000 Jihad Islamiya members are also languishing in Egyptian jails.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions