Veteran human rights defender Ahmed Seif Al Islam dies in Egypt

August 29, 2014
On 21 August I reported on the travails of an Egyptian family of human rights defenders [], a week later Mona Seif’s father has died. Ahmed Seif Al Islam was a veteran Egyptian lawyer, activist and former political prisoner. Arrested and tortured by State Security Investigations officers in 1983 for his political activity, he served five years in prison. Founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, which since 2008 has been providing legal assistance to protesters. The Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC ) monitored state violence during the 2011 protests, and became a gathering place for human rights activists during the revolution. Ahmed Seif was arrested by Military Intelligence with his staff at the height of the protests.
Seif, a human rights lawyer, was on the legal defense team in numerous high-profile trials of human rights, labor, and more broadly political activists in the Hosni Mubarak years, but he was above all an activist himself. The was more often than not the coordinating center for planning peaceful demonstrations and then, invariably, for deploying lawyers to various detention centers in response to the usual mass arrests that followed such events.In a conversation I had with Seif several years ago, in February 2007, he told me how he became engaged in human rights activism and lawyering:

He told Joe Stork of HRW some years ago: “I didn’t start in human rights. I started as a Communist in an underground organization. I was tortured in 1983. Under torture I had to give a lot of information. I was turned into a wreck of a human being. A small example: each time I had a meal of torture, there was the sound of a bell. Since then, whenever I hear the sound of a bell my body shakes. At that time I made a decision that it was no use to have political activity without dealing with human rights. I was sentenced to five years in prison. During this period I studied law. I left jail in 1989, November I think. By December I was a member of the Bar, and active in the Lawyers’ Syndicate. After two years as an apprentice, I started volunteer work on issues of freedoms and rights. The first time was during the Kafr al-Dawwar site of major textile industries strikes in 1994, and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s apostasy case.”

In the same 2007 conversation Seif’ reflected on the state of human rights activism in Egypt at that time.

“Our greatest accomplishment is that rights issues are part of the domestic agenda, and in the state, in their discourse, in academic research, in the media, and the legal profession. We managed to create a social consensus against torture. That didn’t exist 10 years ago. The Communists would say secretly, ‘It doesn’t matter if Islamists are tortured.’ And the Islamists would say, ‘Why not torture communists?’ In the last five years you don’t hear this from anyone. The government created the National Council for Human Rights – responding to external pressures, for cosmetic purposes, but also responding to the situation in the country. The acceptance of several sectors of the Egyptian society to have foreign monitoring of elections, or monitoring by rights groups, this is now a demand of most political currents. The quantity of complaints that citizens make to rights groups, I don’t think the groups suffer from any lack of work! All organizations, no matter how new, have a problem of excessive expectations in terms of their capacity. This is despite all the counter-propaganda the government puts out with the help of others – like underground Communist organizations that see us as some kind of American clone. They are very dear friends, whom I also defend of course. And when I go to defend them, they don’t object.”

Ahmed Seif Al Islam: In Memoriam | Human Rights Watch.

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