Today will be a nerve-wracking day for Mohamed Soltan, a 27-year-old US-Egyptian activist who has been languishing in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison, where he has been on hunger strike for more than 14 months. The court sentenced his father, Salah Soltan, and 13 others to death on 16 March. Their sentences may be confirmed after consultation with the grand mufti.
Tomorrow, Mohamed and 36 others will face the same court on charges including “funding the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in”—a mass protest in Cairo in August 2013 forcibly dispersed by security forces—and spreading “false information” to destabilise the security of Egypt. They are part of a group of 51 individuals arrested after the sit-in as part of a sweeping crackdown on supporters of Egypt’s ousted president, Mohamed Morsi.
Mohamed’s sister, Hanaa, is incredibly anxious about what the future might hold for her family. Below is a harrowing letter she wrote to her brother:
I’m often asked why, and how, you’ve kept up your hunger strike for 14 months now, despite our pleas for you to end it. I’ve watched your body go from a plump basketball-playing frame to one that has withered down to its bones. Your face, with its beautiful smile often grinning, now looks permanently in pain. And all I can do to explain is to tell people that it’s the only form of control you have to hold on to—now more than ever, on the eve of your sentencing.
Last month, our father was sentenced to death in the same case in which you are due to be sentenced tomorrow. We weren’t expecting it. I was told by the lawyers to expect a few years at most. I still have not recovered from the trauma of this.
On 26 January 2014, you began your hunger strike to help regain some form of control, which you had been completely stripped of. You had been in jail for five months by then and said you had grown tired of complaining about receiving no medical care for both a potentially fatal pre-existing blood clot disorder, as well as the torture and ill-treatment you were subjected to when you were detained.
You described how officers used chains to beat your arm, where you still had stiches for a gunshot wound you received during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in by Egyptian security forces on 14 August 2013. The beatings caused the stiches to open, leaving you susceptible to all kinds of dangerous infections. The beatings also caused the metal pins and plates in your arm to shift, cutting against nerves and muscles, causing great pain, for which you were allowed no medication or treatment. You could not even get X-rays done. A doctor cellmate undertook ad hoc surgery using pliers and a razor with no anaesthesia or sterilization. You told President Barack Obama of this horror in a letter in November of 2013. He has yet to reply.
We have been so worried about you that we recently pressured you to consume liquids, because of your solitary confinement for 23 and a half hours a day and lack of medical care at Leiman Tora Prison. Nevertheless, you hang on to the strike, because it is the only thing you can change and choose. You would have suffered a mental breakdown otherwise. I understand.
Your frail body belies a strong mind. I know you’ve grown very spiritual throughout this whole process. You read every novel and book that we send, multiple times over. At times, the prison guards would prevent any new reading material coming into your cell, and it’s at these times when you’re most vulnerable to losing your grip. Reading and the hunger strike have been your main coping mechanisms. For us, choosing and sending you books has been one way to cope too.
For that half hour that you’re allowed out from the cell, you try to get your blood flowing through basic physical therapy. Your legs have become too weak to stand or walk. I imagine you also engage frequently with the guards and others. You’re an incredibly social human being, and need to be around others. I imagine you using that half hour to get some much-needed human contact.
Knowing that your fate is in the hands of a judge who has sentenced our father to death does not help calm my nerves. I am very anxious. Throughout this 19-month ordeal, I have seen so much of humanity lost, but I have also been amazed at the good that exists in people the world over, and the power of our unity in humanity. It has many faces, and I am grateful for every single one. Mohamed, you are blessed in many ways to have your story reach so many. There are at least 16,000 more prisoners in Egypt with stories like yours.
Your sister, and best friend,
Amnesty International is campaigning for Mohamed Soltan’s immediate release. Amnesty argues that under international standards, what he has been charged with should not be considered criminal offences. He should also be granted access to any medical attention he may require and Egyptian authorities must refrain from taking any punitive measures against him for his hunger strike, the organisation says.