March 19, 2020 / 6:44 PM / 10 days ago

UPDATE 2-Egypt detains women who called for prisoner release amid coronavirus, lawyer says

(Updates with fourth woman freed)

CAIRO, March 19 (Reuters) - Four women detained by Egyptian security forces after demonstrating in central Cairo for the release of prisoners they said may be at risk from the coronavirus were freed late on Thursday, a relative of one of the women said. The four women, including a prominent novelist and a professor, were detained by security forces on Wednesday, a lawyer and the relative said.

They were held for questioning on charges including incitement to organise a demonstration and spreading false news, the relative, Sanaa Seif, told Reuters. Seif posted the news of the four women’s release on social media.

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

Also 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 256 confirmed coronavirus cases, including seven deaths. With the spread of the outbreak, rights groups and activists have campaigned for the release of political, sick and elderly prisoners, citing what they describe as poor conditions, lack of healthcare 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. Authorities have suspended prison visits since March 10, citing the risk from the virus.

Among those detained on Wednesday were Laila Soueif, a campaigner and mother of high-profile imprisoned activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, and Laila’s sister Ahdaf Soueif, 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 the coronavirus in prisons.

Egypt bans demonstrations without prior security approval.

Laila Soueif was released after being taken to the state security prosecution on Thursday evening, while the other three were released on bail from a police station in central Cairo, Sanaa Seif said.

Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leading activist in the 2011 uprising that toppled 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, Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)

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