March 19, 2020 / 4:43 PM / in 10 days

Egypt detains women who called for prisoner release amid coronavirus, lawyer says

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian security forces have detained four women including a prominent novelist and a professor after they demonstrated in central Cairo for the release of prisoners they said may be at risk from coronavirus, a lawyer and one of their relatives said.

The women were detained as they protested outside the cabinet office on Wednesday and are being held for questioning on charges including incitement to organise a demonstration and spreading false news, the relative, Sanaa Seif, told Reuters.

An interior ministry spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment and there was no statement from prosecutors.

On Thursday, state TV and a judicial source reported that 15 members of political movements had been ordered released from jail.

The total number of inmates in Egypt is unclear, but tens of thousands have been detained in a broad crackdown on political opposition since then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013.

Egypt has reported 210 confirmed coronavirus cases including six deaths. As the outbreak spread, rights groups and activists have campaigned for the release of political, sick and elderly prisoners in Egypt, citing what they describe as poor conditions and overcrowding in prisons.

Sisi, elected president in 2014, has denied holding political prisoners. He and his backers say the detentions over recent years are necessary to stabilise Egypt.

Security sources and officials have said no coronavirus cases have been detected in prisons and that the interior ministry is taking measures to protect prisoners. Prison visits have been suspended since March 10 because of the virus.

Among those detained on Wednesday were Laila Soueif, the mother of prominent imprisoned activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and Laila’s sister Ahdaf, a novelist short-listed for the Booker Prize, according to Khaled Ali, a lawyer for the family.

The other two women detained were Laila’s daughter Mona Seif, a rights activist, and Rabab El Mahdi, a professor at the American University in Cairo.

A video posted by Mona Seif on her Facebook account showed the women raising banners calling for political prisoners to be freed and warning against the danger of coronavirus in prisons.

Egypt bans demonstrations without prior security approval.

Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leading activist in the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, was detained in September after rare anti-government protests, six months after his release from a five-year prison term.

Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Amina Ismail; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Alexandra Hudson

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