Egypt's open-air prison
Just before dawn on 11 May last year, Amal Fathy and her husband Mohammed Lotfy's lives changed forever. As Amal was trying to get their young son to sleep, Lotfy heard a knock at the door. On the other side, a plainclothes security officer stood alongside a group of masked and heavily armed special forces. Lotfy let them in and invited them to sit down.
"The plainclothes security official pulled up a chair at the dining table. He said to me, 'You must know why we are here,'" recalled Lotfy.
While Lotfy was working documenting human rights abuses with his organisation, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, it had been Amal that was in danger, despite her having done no more than upload a video to social media complaining about sexual harassment she'd suffered during a visit to the bank. The video had gone viral and smears about Amal, a former actress and activist, began to appear in the pro-government local media.
Still, said Lotfy, "I didn't expect her to be arrested." When the officers demanded that the couple come to the local police station, they found another dozen masked and armed special forces waiting outside their building, who looked as though they were prepared to arrest hardened criminals.
Capriciousness and draconian punishments
Amal was taken into pre-trial detention, where two charges were laid against her: the first of spreading false news, undermining national security and publishing "an indecent video using foul language", and the second, brought by Egypt's national security prosecution service, of belonging to a terrorist group, spreading false news and undermining national security.
"We don't know which terrorist group or group they're referring to and we don't know what the evidence against her is – we don't have access to the case file. We don't even know if it's about the video as well, or if it's actually about something else," said Lotfy.
Amal's detention punished both her and her family. "For almost three months, I wasn't myself," Lotfy recounted. "I couldn't stay seated even for an hour. I was hyperactive and nervous. I was constantly trying to distract myself from the idea that my wife was detained and there was little I could do. It even affected my relationship with our son, as I couldn't sit with him for more than an hour." When their son, now almost 4 years old, would ask where his mother was, Lotfy told him Amal was in hospital.
The 34-year-old was held in pre-trial detention until 30 December last year, when she was released on probation. She received confirmation of her first sentence just three days later. Both cases still loom large over the family's day-to-day existence, amid fears that Amal could be re-arrested at any time. Although she is now out of prison, confusion surrounding the terms of her probation means that she remains under house arrest.
Human rights in a stranglehold
Her case is, sadly, far from unique: She is now one of a growing number of high-profile prisoners released into what human rights groups have called an open-air prison. An estimated 60,000 people are currently imprisoned in Egypt on political or politically related charges, according to Human Rights Watch, although Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian authorities have routinely denied that any political prisoners exist in the country.