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Jailed Egypt activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah's "life at acute risk" as he rejects food, water during COP27

Fear for hunger-striking Egyptian activist
Fear for hunger-striking Egyptian activist 02:21
Egyptian pro-democracy activists Alaa Abdel-Fattah, left, and his sister Sanaa Seif are seen in a 2014 file photo posted on Facebook by Seif. The photo was taken when their father, also a human rights activist, died. The siblings had been unable to visit their father in the hospital as they were both jailed at the time. Facebook/Sanaa Seif

The head of the United Nations human rights office called on Tuesday for the immediate release of prominent Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who has been refusing all food and water since the start of the COP27 climate conference on Sunday.

Alaa "is in great danger," Volker Türk said, according to the Associated Press. "His dry hunger strike puts his life at acute risk."

As spokesman for his office said the U.N. had last raised the issue of Alaa's health with the Egyptian authorities on Friday, and that they were calling for him "to be urgently, immediately released."

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he and other world leaders in Egypt's resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh had explicitly raised Alaa's case with their Egyptian counterparts.

"Something needs to happen to make a release possible, so that the hunger striker doesn't die," Scholz said.

Alaa, a dual Egyptian-British citizen who was an important figure in the pro-democracy "Arab Spring" movement more than a decade ago, has been imprisoned in Egypt for virtually the entire tenure of Egypt's current authoritarian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, since 2014. Alaa's family and human rights groups call the charges against him spurious.

"I'm scared for Alaa, but I also really understand his decision for escalation, because he's bound to die in prison," his sister Sanaa Seif, who's previously spent time in an Egyptian prison for her rights activism, told CBS News last week. "Maybe the way out for him is to kind of fasten the timeline, so that maybe there is enough pressure to save him." 

Britain Egypt Activist
Sanaa Seif, sister of Egypt's imprisoned pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, left, poses with Caroline Lucas, a Green Party U.K. parliamentarian, outside the Foreign Office in London, November 1, 2022. Kin Cheung/AP

Seif, who also holds dual Egyptian-British citizenship, traveled to Egypt to attend the COP27 summit as a delegate, where she vowed to continue raising attention for her brother's case. Her trip came after she spent days camping outside Britain's Foreign Office in the weeks leading up to the climate conference.

On Monday, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he would meet with el-Sisi at COP27 and "of course raise this issue. It's something that not just the United Kingdom, but many countries want to see resolved.''

At a press conference on Tuesday, Seif said her family had not received their regular letter from Alaa, which they had been expecting at the start of the week, and that they were asking the British government to push for proof of life.

Seif said reports that el-Sisi had made a commitment to French President Emmanuel Macron, that Alaa's health would be preserved, worried her.

APTOPIX COP27 Egypt Activist
Sanaa Seif, sister of Egypt's jailed leading pro-democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is on a hunger and water strike, leaves Sharm El-Sheikh International Airport in northeast Egypt shortly after arriving, November 7, 2022. STF/AP

"Are they force-feeding my brother right now? Is he handcuffed in a bed, put on IV's against his will? This is what it sounds like to me when they say 'preserve his health,' but not acknowledge his hunger strike and not allow consular access."

"Let's be clear, we're running out of time. If the authorities do not want to end up with a death they should have and could have prevented, they must act now," the secretary general of rights group Amnesty International, Agnes Callamard, told journalists in Egypt on Sunday. "If they don't, that death will be holding on to COP27. It will be in every single discussion — every single discussion there will be Alaa."

El-Sisi's government has sought to use its hosting of the COP27 gathering as a "show of force internally," Seif said, insisting that climate change cannot be meaningfully addressed without political freedom. 

"You're facing interests, stuff like big oil companies and things like that, and any improvements we will get is because of the pressure of civil society and activists and marginalized communities, vulnerable communities," she told CBS News. "In order to resolve the climate crisis, we need an open environment where people can express — can call on their politicians, can hold them accountable, and we don't have that space in Egypt."

Seif said she still hoped her brother would be freed and allowed to leave Egypt and join his family in the U.K., but if he isn't, and he doesn't survive, she said he will have made a difference.

The Egyptian regime "used him to set an example for others… this is something he didn't choose," she told CBS News. "I'm proud of him for living up to this example, and instead of becoming an example for oppression, a symbol of oppression, he's become a symbol of resistance, of resilience."

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