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Alaa Abd el-Fattah: Hunger Strike

Volume 825: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to assist British citizen Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who is currently on hunger strike in Egyptian detention, and since Sunday refusing to drink water.

I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. I declare a relevant interest, which is that I am an old friend of Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s aunt, the journalist and writer Ahdaf Soueif.

My Lords, I recognise and share the deep concern felt by the noble Baroness, as well as by many other noble Lords and colleagues in the other place, about the situation with Mr el-Fattah. We also appreciate what an incredibly difficult time this must be for his whole family. I am also deeply concerned about Mr el-Fattah’s welfare following his escalation to a dry hunger strike on 6 November, in protest at his lack of consular access and the conditions of his detention. I assure the noble Baroness that Ministers and officials have continuously raised issues of his detention and the need for consular access with the Government of Egypt, on numerous occasions, including directly with the President.

I thank the noble Lord very much for that. We have talked about this before and I know that he is entirely on the right side on this. Mr el- Fattah campaigned for democracy during the Arab spring; had things gone differently, this Government would have worked closely with him to bring democracy to Egypt. In fact, he has spent the last nine years in some of the most inhuman prisons that Egypt can come up with. As we know, he has been on a hunger strike, on 100 calories a day, for over 200 days now. Using the worldwide attention that COP is bringing, he started a water strike on Sunday. I am in contact with his aunt: the family have no proof of consciousness and no proof of life. His sister has been at the jail this morning: they have not accepted a letter. They have no idea whether he is being force-fed and no idea what conversations took place between our Prime Minister and President Sisi when they met in Sharm el-Sheikh earlier this week. I find it hard to believe, as he is a British citizen who is very likely to die—indeed, as I speak, he may well be dead—that we cannot apply some more pressure to rescue this extremely important man. It actually would not matter who he was: he is a British citizen in serious trouble.

My Lords, I agree. We must apply all the levers we have. This was a major part of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s meeting with President Sisi, including re-emphasising that Alaa is a British citizen; indeed, that was a point I made on Sunday when I spoke to the Egyptian ambassador. The fact that we want consular access is not something that we have dreamed up. It is something that should be granted as a matter of fact.

I also met both sisters last week before one of them travelled out; one is still here. They are concerned that he is not taking water. On the issue of proof of life, I know that their mother is outside the jail asking for that weekly letter. What is required urgently is confirmation of that very issue. We will press, and are pressing, on that point. Again, it is a basic fact of reassurance that the family need.

We are pushing on his detention and consular access. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary met Foreign Minister Shoukry and raised this issue. I also know that the United Nations has made representations: Volker Türk, the human rights commissioner, put out a very strong statement coinciding with what is in effect a UN conference. I do not want to beat around the bush in any way: while there has been constructive engagement, we have not yet been granted consular access. That is unacceptable. I assure all noble Lords—and the noble Baroness in particular, with her family connections—that I am fully invested in this. I am trying to do everything within my capacity, but am also ensuring that the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary are fully versed with the issue and are engaging most directly.

My Lords, I do not think that anyone in your Lordships’ House doubts the noble Lord’s commitment on this, or that he believes every word that he has said about doing what he can to help. But this is not a new issue. A British citizen may be dying—may indeed have died—in an Egyptian jail. As his condition deteriorates, it is absolutely essential that he has British consular access; it is not just a “nice to have”. I welcome that the Prime Minister apparently raised his case directly but, if even the Prime Minister cannot secure consular access for a British citizen, what happens next? The Government have to escalate this, to step up the pressure, because the pressure on his family and friends is beyond belief. Imagine that we were in that situation, of not knowing if a wrongly imprisoned loved one was dead or alive: it is just inconceivable. Has it been made clear to the noble Lord’s Egyptian counterparts and other relevant Ministers that there will be—and could be very soon—serious diplomatic consequences for their actions? Can he really say that he is confident that the Government have done enough?

My Lords, no one knows how it feels for the family. I know there was a small intervention when I was not Minister for North Africa for a brief period, but meeting them directly that was one of the first actions I took in the role. Both sisters were outside the FCDO and I invited them in, because for me that was just the basic and human thing to do. We discussed the matter quite specifically. I totally take on board what the noble Baroness said. I will reassure her, to this extent: while the broader relationship with the Egyptians is an important one, this has a massive bearing on the nature of that relationship.

Equally, I know that colleagues in your Lordships’ House and the other place, including the shadow Foreign Secretary, are very much invested in this. Indeed, he is the constituency MP. I have spoken to him briefly previously, but I will reach out to specific people to update them in as detailed a manner as I can, and I will of course update the House.

I assure noble Lords that, of all the priorities I look at within my brief, the issue of whatever can be done to save the life of a British citizen ranks right up there in terms of my personal and political priorities, and the priorities for the Government. I will continue to work and to inform noble Lords of our work in this respect, but I and the Government get it. We should be pulling all the levers at our disposal to ensure that we get the basic right for every British citizen to have consular access. First and foremost, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, reminded us, we need to ensure that his welfare, which includes him being alive, is also verified by the authorities.

My Lords, why has the Prime Minister been unable to secure information that a British citizen is alive? What actions did President Sisi provide in response to our Prime Minister’s meeting with him? The Minister said that UK officials being unable to secure consular access to a British citizen is unacceptable. I agree, but what consequences are there? There is a UK-Egypt association agreement that offers preferential trading with the UK to Egypt. There are mechanisms to pause this agreement on the basis of human rights abuses. Will the Government now indicate to Egypt that we intend to pause those preferential trading arrangements until proper consular access to a British citizen can be provided to the UK?

My Lords, I am not going to go into the detail of what our next steps may be, but I will pick up specifically the point on consular access. The noble Lord is fully aware of the fact that Egypt does not regard him as a dual citizen; it regards him as an Egyptian citizen. That has been a real bone of contention. The fact is that he is a British citizen and I can confirm that he has a British passport and should be given consular access. The Prime Minister raised that issue directly and specifically. We are pressing for release or the first step, which is consular access, to be secured, because that is the follow-up step. I cannot say what broader measures might be taken, but I fully take on board the points the noble Lord raised. I am in maybe a quite unique position, in that I am not just the Minister responsible for our relations with Egypt; I am also the Minister responsible for human rights. I take that second responsibility most seriously.

My Lords, are there any Egyptian citizens currently serving in British prisons? If so, how are they being treated?

My Lords, my noble friend asked a quite specific question. I am sure the numbers can be confirmed by our colleagues in the Home Office. I am sure that they are being treated fairly, being given access and have their rights respected, in accordance with the standards of how we expect prisoners should be treated. That is an important attribute that we have for any person in any detention in any British prison.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his answers so far, but put very simply, does he agree with the following proposition: friendly nations do not deprive each other of consular access to their citizens? That is what hostile nations do. If His Majesty’s Government cannot protect Alaa in Egypt, it will be harder to protect British citizens all over the world.

I agree with the noble Baroness. It is a primary responsibility. When you take any oath or any position in government from any place in your Lordships’ House or the other place, the primary responsibility every Minister swears to is the security and safety of our citizens. It is the primary duty of any Government of whatever political colour. That remains the focus of the current British Government.

I fully accept that we have not gained consular access, but I welcome questions and challenge such as this, because it is not just a Minister saying to the Egyptian authorities that this is a matter of concern or priority for the British Government and that we will be challenged; we are being challenged, and rightly so, because it is a strength of our democracy. The whole essence of Alaa’s detention is that he is someone who feels that democracy is an important element in any progressive inclusive society.

We are friends with Egypt and have an important relationship with Egypt. I agree with the noble Baroness that that should lend to them facilitating immediate consular access to a British citizen.

My Lords, Alaa is not able to be with us, but perhaps I could let him speak for himself from his writings. This is from when he first went on hunger strike in 2014: “The health of my body is of no value as long as it is forced to submit to an unjust power in an open-ended imprisonment that has nothing to do with law or justice … I ask for your prayers. I ask for your solidarity. I ask you to continue where I have stopped: to fight, to dream, to hope.” We have heard many optimistic-sounding words from the Government in a variety of forms. I think they have not left any of us with a great deal of hope. I ask the Minister: can he say something which will give us at least a modicum of hope?

My Lords, I have received Alaa’s book. I have not read all of it, but I have read part of it and totally associate myself with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord in uttering Alaa’s words. Hope should never be given up. This is a very dire situation; we have a British citizen who is now not just on hunger strike but has stopped taking water. His health is of acute importance to us.

What I can give noble Lords—I hope it provides a degree of assurance as I do not know what will happen in the next 24 hours—is that this remains a key priority for me personally as the Minister responsible. I know the Prime Minister has taken this very seriously. One of Mr Johnson’s last acts before leaving government—literally on his day of departure—was to ring and again emphasise directly the importance of this case.

I will update the House and hope I can provide hope in future answers. At this point, I can only stress and repeat that the Government have taken all measures in terms of direct engagement with Mr Sisi, the Foreign Minister and the ambassador here in the Court of St James. We will continue to do so. Ultimately, we hope —indeed, we pray—that Alaa will be given consular access and ultimately be released and reunited with his family.

My Lords, I am sure we all appreciate the manner in which my noble friend has answered these very difficult questions about a very tragic case, and let us hope that the ultimate tragedy does not occur. Does this not raise a wider issue as to where international conferences, and even sporting events, should be held? Should we not be a little discerning? Would it not in fact have been better for this United Nations conference to be held at the United Nations? It gives a degree of encouragement to allow countries that have fairly repressive regimes to strut the world stage and act as hosts to incredibly important international gatherings.

My Lords, obviously decisions are made about locations for particular events. In defence of the United Nations, while the conference has been going on, we have seen—and I spoke earlier of—the response of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is the most senior official and very close to the Secretary-General António Guterres. They have put out a very blunt and specific statement on this case. While we appreciate the Egyptians hosting this conference on the important priority of tackling climate change, which is for many an existential threat around the world, international conferences provide an opportunity —either directly, as in this case, or more generally through UN human rights organs—to throw a spotlight on specific issues such as human rights within a given country.