The last time Souheila Yildiz heard her fiancée's voice was back in November, as they said goodbye before leaving to spend Christmas with their families.
Because when Ahmed Samir Santawy arrived at Egypt's Sharm El Sheikh International Airport, he was detained and interrogated about his research around Egyptian women’s reproductive rights at the Central European University in Vienna, where he is studying for a master’s.
He was set free, but he and his family were subject to a series of hearings and house raids that VICE World News reported on earlier this year. On the 1st of February, he was detained by Egypt's National Security Agency. During his detention, he was blindfolded and beaten by the Egyptian authorities, his legal team said.
Santawy had become the latest victim of the Egyptian government’s repressive crackdown on journalists, activists and scholars critical of the country’s regime.
In March, Santawy was moved to pre-trial detention at the Liman Tora, a maximum-security prison in southern Cairo. There, he was eventually allowed one 20-minute visit by a close family member each month. But because he and Yildiz were not officially married, she could not visit or call him, and could only write letters.
"The guards would read them and decide if they will pass them on or not," Yildiz told VICE World News.
On the 22nd of May, Egypt's Supreme State Security Prosecution opened a new case against Santawy for "publishing false news to undermine the state, its national interests and public order and spread panic among the people."
One month later, a Misdemeanours Emergency State Security Court sentenced Santawy to four years in prison.
"The only evidence presented against him at court were screenshots of Facebook posts which were printed out on paper," Yildiz said.
The Facebook posts were about the Egyptian government’s response to the COVID pandemic, and criticism of human rights violations. Santawy denied writing them.
The Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), which represented Santawy at court in June, said: "The court considered screenshots which were printed on paper, not in digital form, despite Egyptian law stating that such evidence must also be in digital form available online."
The AFTE was only allowed a short conversation with Santawy.
"We spoke very briefly because the national security officers did not allow us to have a proper conversation. Ahmed looked depressed," a spokesperson said.
Neither AFTE nor Santawy's family received the final verdict on paper. "The judge said what the verdict was at court, but no one got to see the document, despite us requesting this immediately after the court sessions ended," said Yildiz.
The verdict is needed in order for the AFTE to file an objection to the Egyptian president- the only one who can quash the ruling of the courts is Egypt’s autocratic president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is required to approve all Emergency State Court rulings.
"Appealing to the president is our last chance now, but this could take years as there is no official time limit for him to do so," said Yildiz.
After the verdict was delivered,Santawy was taken back to Liman Tora prison, where he started a hunger strike. "He has been on a hunger strike for 20 days, and his health is deteriorating," said Yildiz.
"I am in constant horror not only because of the hunger strike but because no one is allowed to see him. His brother tried to go visit him and was not allowed to see or speak to him."
She fears that the ban on family visits is due to Santawy's worsening health. "I am afraid that he is in such a bad condition that they don't want the family to see him."
Besides not being allowed to visit, prison guards are also withholding letters that Yildiz and Santawy send each other, Yildiz said.
"They are not allowing us to communicate as a tool to pressure Ahmed to stop the hunger strike," said Yildiz. The last letter she received from Santawy is from the 19th of June,. AFTE has requested for his health to be checked regularly, and for him to be taken to hospital if necessary. But according to Yildiz, they received no response, and therefore his current health status is unclear.
A representative for AFTE told VICE World News that the case can not be appealed on conventional grounds l as it was presided over by the Emergency State Court, a parallel judicial system instituted under the state of emergency in October 2017.
Amnesty International deems verdicts by the Emergency State Court as "inherently unfair." Human Rights Watch is calling for the courts to be abolished, because they unjustly prosecute journalists, activists, and peaceful critics of the Egyptian regime without granting them a right to appeal. By doing so, the judicial body violates article 14 of the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which entitles defendants "a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal."
"It was his 30th birthday on the 4th of July. He spent it alone in a cell, and with no chance to talk to him or write letters, I am left with my imagination. There, I tell him that I stand with him."