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Biden accused of U-turn over Egypt’s human rights abuses | Egypt

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“It’s a hostage negotiation and it has been all along,” said Sherif Mansour, describing the arrest of his cousin Reda Abdel-Rahman by Egyptian security forces last August as an attempt to intimidate Mansour into silence.

Abdel-Rahman has been imprisoned without trial for nine months. Mansour, an outspoken human rights advocate in Washington with the Committee to Protect Journalists, has since learned that he and his father are listed on the same charge sheet, all accused of joining a terrorist group and spreading “false news”.

Mansour is one of a growing number of activists, dissidents and analysts angry at the US administration’s suddenly warm relations with Egypt. They point to Egyptian officials’ escalating threats against critics living in exile in the US, including arresting their family members or contacts in Egypt, many of whom are imprisoned like Abdel-Rahman on spurious charges.

Twelve members of Mansour’s family have been detained and interrogated by Egyptian security agents since Abdel-Rahman’s detention.

“They ask about us, when we last spoke to them, what we spoke about,” Mansour said. “They go through their phones – and if they don’t provide passwords they’re beaten in order to find anything that connects them to us, including Facebook conversations.

“It’s why we haven’t been in touch: I’ve stopped talking to my family in order not to give them any reason to harass them,” he said.

Joe Biden and the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, held their first official call in late May, four months after Biden took office. As a candidate, Biden promised that there would be “no blank checks” for the man Donald Trump once addressed as “my favourite dictator”. Yet when they spoke, the two leaders discussed human rights in terms of a “constructive dialogue” and “reaffirmed their commitment to a strong and productive US-Egypt partnership”, according to the White House.

Gabi Ashkenazi, left, Israel’s foreign minister, at a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry
Gabi Ashkenazi, left, Israel’s foreign minister, at a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, in Cairo in May. Photograph: Mohamed Hossam/AFP/Getty

This followed Egyptian mediation of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, including a recent rare public visit by the Egyptian intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, to Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, travelling to Cairo – the first visit by an Israeli foreign minister in 13 years.

HA Hellyer, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinktank, said: “The latest crisis in the Palestinian occupied territories and the Israeli bombardment reminded DC of a very clear and present reality: that there is no capital in the region that has direct and workable relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank other than Cairo.”

Biden’s administration capped his warm exchange with the Egyptian president with a decision to request $1.38bn (£1bn) in annual military aid for Egypt – the maximum amount possible.

A coalition of human rights groups expressed “strong disappointment” at the administration’s decision. “President Biden campaigned on ‘no more blank checks’ for Egypt’s regime, but requesting the same amount the United States has provided annually since 1987 despite Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record is, effectively, another blank check,” they said.

Mansour agreed. “They abandoned the rhetoric calling publicly on Egypt to respect human rights by agreeing to this ‘constructive dialogue’,” he said. “It makes my blood boil to hear this term in many ways. Not just because it’s a repetition of what we as Egyptians, and the United States, have heard from all previous dictators, but it also underscores how naive and timid this administration is when it comes to Egypt.”

Joe Biden
Joe Biden has been criticised for his stance on Egypt. Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Getty

Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, Sisi has overseen the broadest crackdown on dissent and free speech in Egypt’s recent history. Tens of thousands remain behind bars for their political views or for activities as benign as a Facebook comment; Egypt’s prisons are at double their capacity, according to Amnesty International.

The Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights organisation founded by the Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan, has tracked the increasing numbers of arrests of family members of outspoken Egyptians in exile abroad. It said that threatening phone calls and even physical intimidation were now regularly used against Egyptian dissidents worldwide.

“They said they could hire someone here in the States to go after me,” said Aly Hussin Mahdy, an influencer and dissident now in exile in the US. Mahdy described how his family members were detained earlier this year as a way to stop him speaking out against the Egyptian government on social media; his father remains in detention. The threats against Mahdy escalated to menacing phone calls from someone purporting to be an Egyptian intelligence agent after he openly discussed his family members’ arrests.

Entrance to the Tora prison in Cairo
Entrance to the Tora prison in Cairo. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty

The Freedom Initiative described what it termed “hostage-taking tactics” involving five American citizens whose families were detained in Egypt in order to silence their activism in the US. In addition, it found more than a dozen cases of US citizens or residents whose close relatives were detained in Egypt last year, although it believes the true number to be far higher.

It added that one US citizen was warned against speaking to US lawmakers on their release from detention in Egypt, and told that doing so would result in harm to their family.

Yet US law contains mechanisms to curb cooperation with countries that threaten US citizens and dissidents abroad. These include the Leahy law, which stops the US funding foreign security forces that violate human rights; the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the government to sanction human rights abusers and prevent them from entering the US; and the “Khashoggi ban”, curbing visas for those engaged in anti-dissident activities.

The White House did not initially respond when contacted for comment on this issue. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told a congressional hearing this week that “I think we’ve seen some progress in some areas” of human rights in Egypt, but that “when it comes to freedom of expression, when it comes to civil society, there are very significant problems that we need to address directly with our Egyptian partners – and we are. So we hope and expect to see progress there.”

US-based activists expressed disappointment at lawmakers’ reluctance to employ sanctions against Egyptian officials, who they say more than qualify for punitive measures.

“The fact that Egypt feels it can get away with taking citizens hostage, and so far it did, will continue to be a stain on the Biden administration,” said Mansour.

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‘We just sleep and hope we don’t perish’: 2m in Tigray in urgent need of food – UN | Hunger

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At least 2 million people in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray are suffering from an extreme lack of food, with the 15-month conflict between rebel and government forces pushing families to the brink, the UN’s emergency food agency has found.

In the first comprehensive assessment the World Food Programme (WFP) has carried out in Tigray since the start of the war, 37% of the population were found to be severely food insecure, meaning they had at times run out of food and gone a day or more without eating.

Families were found to be “exhausting all means to feed themselves”, with 13% of Tigrayan children under five and almost two-thirds of pregnant and breastfeeding women suffering from malnutrition.

“Before the conflict we were eating three times a day but now even once a day is difficult. I was borrowing food from my family but now they have run out. We just sleep and hope we do not perish,” Kiros, a single mother of six children living on the outskirts of the region’s capital, Mekelle, told researchers.

The assessment, which was based on face-to-face interviews with 980 households in accessible parts of Tigray, was carried out from mid-November until mid-December.

However, researchers were unable to travel to areas where fighting is impeding humanitarian access. Moreover, since the assessment was carried out, the needs of the region are thought to have become even more acute as no aid convoy has reached Tigray for about six weeks.

“This bleak assessment reconfirms that what the people of northern Ethiopia need is scaled up humanitarian assistance, and they need it now,” said Michael Dunford, WFP’s regional director for eastern Africa.

“WFP is doing all it can to ensure our convoys with food and medicines make it through the frontlines. But if hostilities persist, we need all the parties to the conflict to agree to a humanitarian pause and formally agreed transport corridors, so that supplies can reach the millions besieged by hunger.”

Across northern Ethiopia, where fighting has raged in the regions of Afar and Amhara as well as Tigray, WFP estimates that 9 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, the highest number yet.

In Amhara, hunger has more than doubled in five months, it says. In Afar, where fighting has intensified in recent days between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces loyal to the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, recent health screening data showed malnutrition rates for children under five were at 28%, far above the standard emergency threshold of 15%.

Since the conflict erupted in November 2020, it has been difficult for the UN and other humanitarian organisations to gauge the level of need in Tigray due to a lack of on-the-ground access and telecommunications. The UN has accused the federal government of preventing food and essential medical supplies from coming into the region in a de-facto blockade. The government denies this.

On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had made its first delivery of medical supplies to Mekelle since last September. The drugs are understood to have included enough insulin supplies to last about a month, after medics at the Ayder referral hospital raised the alarm over severe shortages.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization, recently accused Abiy’s government of imposing a “hell” on Tigray by denying entry to medical supplies.

“It is a huge relief that this first shipment is reaching hospitals,” said Apollo Barasa, health coordinator at the ICRC delegation in Ethiopia. “This assistance is a lifeline for thousands of people, and I can’t emphasise enough how crucial it is that these deliveries continue.”

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Asylum applications on rise in EU

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The EU Agency for Asylum on Friday said the number of asylum applications in November 2021 was the second-highest in five years, narrowly below the level in September. About 71,400 applications for international protection were lodged in the “EU+” (EU, plus Norway and Switzerland) in November 2021, up by nine percent from October. “This was the second-highest level since 2016,” it said.

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Protests flare across Poland after death of young mother denied an abortion | Abortion

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Protests are under way across Poland after the death of a 37-year-old woman this week who was refused an abortion, a year since the country introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

On the streets of Warsaw on Tuesday night, protesters laid wreaths and lanterns in memory of Agnieszka T, who died earlier that day. She was pregnant with twins when one of the foetus’ heartbeat stopped and doctors refused to carry out an abortion. In a statement, her family accused the government of having “blood on its hands”. Further protests are planned in Częstochowa, the city in southern Poland where the mother-of-three was from.

“We continue to protest so that no one else will die,” Marta Lempart, organiser of the protests, told Polish media. “The Polish abortion ban kills. Another person has died because the necessary medical procedure was not carried out on time.” All-Poland Women’s Strike has called on people across the country to picket the offices of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and organise road blockades in the coming days.

Agnieszka was first admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa with abdominal pain on 21 December. She is said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she arrived and was in “a good physical and mental shape”, according to her family, who said her condition then deteriorated.

On 21 December the heartbeat of one of the twins stopped and, according to Agnieszka’s family, the doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation. They waited several days until the second foetus also died. A further two days passed before the pregnancy was terminated on 31 December, according to the family.

A priest was then summoned by hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, the family said.

The family say that the doctors refused to terminate the pregnancy earlier, citing Poland’s abortion legislation. “Her husband begged the doctors to save his wife, even at the cost of the pregnancy,” Agnieszka’s twin sister, Wioletta Paciepnik, said on Tuesday.

After the termination, Agnieszka was moved from the gynaecological ward and her health continued to deteriorate. Her family suspect that she died of sepsis but the cause of death was not identified in a statement released by the hospital.

Shortly after her death, a statement by her family accusing the hospital of neglect was published on Facebook, alongside a distressing video of Agnieszka’s last days.

Agnieszka’s death marks the first anniversary of the 2021 ruling that declared abortion due to foetal abnormalities illegal. Abortion can now only be carried out in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life and health are in danger.

Her death comes after that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was refused an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found that “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined. Soon after, an anonymous man from Świdnica in south-west Poland came forward to share that his wife, Ania, died in similar circumstances in June last year.

While “selective abortion” is possible in the case of a twin pregnancy, it is unclear whether aborting an unviable foetus to save its healthy twin is permitted by the new abortion legislation. The Polish court has not referenced the questions raised by this situation, presented by opposition senators last year, in the new legislation.

“We want to honour the memory of my beloved sister and save other women in Poland from a similar fate,” Paciepnik said in a video appeal. The case is now being investigated by the regional prosecutors in Katowice, who also investigated the case of Izabela.

The family are represented by Kamila Ferenc, from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, who confirmed that an autopsy of Agnieszka’s body has been ordered by the court.

According to a statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. The hospital did not respond to the Guardian for a request for comment.

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