A Student Researching Abortion Laws Is Now In One of the World's Strictest Prisons

Vienna student Ahmed Samir Santawy was detained, blindfolded, beaten and charged with terror offences when he returned to Egypt. His partner is leading the campaign to free him.
April 29, 2021, 11:18am
He Was Researching Abortion Laws. Now He’s in One of the World’s Strictest Prisons.
Souheila Yildiz and Ahmed Samir Santawy. Photo: Supplied.

Souheila Yildiz and Ahmed Samir Santawy have always had a long-distance relationship, but ever since he was detained, blindfolded and beaten by Egyptian authorities that distance has felt especially painful.

The last time they saw each other was at the end of November last year, when Yildiz, studying in Ghent, Belgium, travelled to Austria, where Santawy is a student of sociology and anthropology at the Central European University in Vienna.

"We wanted to spend time together before he went away to see his family for Christmas,” Yildiz, 31, told VICE World News. They said their goodbyes on the 27th of November, with plans to see each other next in the new year. 

When Santawy arrived at Sharm El Sheikh International Airport he was questioned by officials about his research into women’s reproductive rights.

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"It all started with Ahmed’s friend having a horrible experience while getting an abortion in Egypt,” Yildiz said. “He was touched by her story and decided to base his master's research on comparing the Egyptian and Islamic abortion laws.”

"He is not only the love of my life but also a generous and loving best friend, who cares deeply about justice in society – a true anthropologist." 

All seemed well, however. Santawy was not too concerned about the questioning when he arrived home – it was a fairly routine experience. 

Because of the pandemic and all his courses being online, Santawy decided to stay in Egypt until February. The couple agreed that Yildiz would fly out to meet him in Egypt at the beginning of February. They planned to spend two weeks in Cairo before returning to Europe together. 

But a week before her arrival, on the 23rd of January at around 2AM, seven masked and armed police officers raided Santawy's family home in Cairo. "They searched the entire building, took pictures of everyone's identification and took footage from two CCTV cameras in the building. All without any search warrant," said Yildiz. 

Santawy was not at home at the time, but his father was given orders that his son was to report to the feared National Security Agency (NSA). Santawy and his father went to the police station on the 30th of January but were told to come back the following day because the head of the police who wanted to see him was not there. "This made us think it was nothing serious. Ahmed attributed the sudden attention of the police to the 10th anniversary of the Egyptian revolution where he was active," said Yildiz.

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She came to Egypt the following day and called Santawy from the duty-free shop after she landed in Alexandria around 10AM. "We were discussing what alcohol to buy. He sounded happy, and we planned our getaway trip to the desert," said Yildiz.

Ahmed Samir Santawy. Photo: Supplied

Ahmed Samir Santawy. Photo: Supplied

Santawy’s appointment at the NSA office was around 12noon. "He told me he would be out in a matter of hours. The plan was to meet at his parents' home after that. I had no reason to doubt that because the police let him walk out of the police station the previous day." 

But when she called him five minutes after his appointment was due to start, his phone was already dead. "That was it. I haven't heard his voice since."

Santawy's father went to the police station the next day to find out what had happened to his son. "They told him that nobody under the name of Ahmed Samir Santawy had been at the station and sent him home," said Yildiz. 

She stayed with his family for the next couple of days. "I tried to stay strong, but it was impossible. I cried so much during those days." 

She spent her days with Santawy’s mother making food and waiting for his release. "In the mornings, I would tell myself that he will make an appearance by the evening. When he didn't, I would repeat that the next day."

On the third day, Santawy's father made an official complaint to the public prosecutor stating that his son had not come home.

The family knew their son was inside the police station from other detainees who were let free. "There was a rumour going around that the police had captured a new suspect under the name of Ahmed Samir. At that time, we still hoped he would be released in a few days," Yildiz said

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Yildiz found out from Santawy’s legal team that he was being kept in a small cell in solitary confinement where the police beat him, including slapping his face and punching him in the stomach while he was handcuffed and blindfolded.

On the 6th of February, Santawy was brought to the Supreme Security State Prosecution, a court responsible for prosecuting crimes that relate to state security. His friend, a lawyer who had found out about the interrogation, had gone to support him there. 

The police questioned him about his academic work and studies, including his research on Islam and abortion. That evening, his family received news that he was charged with membership of a terrorist group, spreading false information, and using social media to spread disinformation. The news hit everyone like a bombshell. 

"That is when we realised it was over. These charges had no basis and were ready-made for anyone who questions the Egyptian regime. There was nothing we could do," said Yildiz.

According to Amnesty International, Santawy is amongst thousands of perceived political opponents who have been arrested by the orders of the Egyptian Supreme State Security Prosecution for unfounded terrorism charges. The state targets various human rights defenders, activists, lawyers, politicians, protesters, journalists and academics. The judicial proceedings are generally based on non-transparent investigations.

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The accusations were based on a file prepared by the National State Agency, which neither Santawy nor his lawyers were permitted to examine, as well as social media posts he denied authoring. 

Yildiz returned to Ghent, distraught. "Those days were the hardest ones I had ever lived. We didn't know which prison he had been transferred to; he could not contact me, his family, or his lawyer," said Yildiz. "I would wake up feeling his absence and a weight on my chest. I could not think straight about anything but getting him out."

Together with the student union of Santawy's University in Vienna, Yildiz reached out to Amnesty International, Scholars at Risk and Human Rights Watch. Their campaigning resulted in protests for Santawy's release across six European capitals as well as online, with people taking pictures holding signs pleading for his release. She also reached out to the foreign ministries of Belgium, Austria and the Austrian embassy in Cairo. "I tried to do everything I could for his release.”

On the 22nd of February, Santawy's lawyer received a notification that his interrogation was to recommence the following day. Yildiz was told that he entered the interrogation room shivering from cold. "He had just one T-shirt throughout the entire month which he spent in a small cell in solitary confinement.”

In March, the legal team received information that Santawy had been moved out of solitary confinement to pre-trial detention at Liman Tora Prison, a maximum-security prison in Southern Cairo- notorious for detaining political prisoners in inhumane conditions. 

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The prison conditions are strict, ensuring that prisoners have zero contact with the outside world. His family can deliver him food and clothes, which is an improvement. Santawy is allowed one visit from a close family member per month. Yildiz and Santawy are engaged, but because they are not married, she is not permitted to visit him.

But Santawy no longer being in solitary confinement did bring some peace of mind to Yildiz and his family. "Knowing that Ahmed is no longer in solitary confinement was a slight relief because he is a very social person who needs people around him," said Yildiz. She attributes this "easing" to pressure put on the Egyptian authorities by human rights organisations and the Austrian embassy in Cairo. 

Photo: Supplied

Photo: Supplied

Yildiz is currently receiving updates on Santawy’s current situation from his mother and younger brother, who visited him in February and March. He gave them letters to pass on to Yildiz, but the guards always confiscated them.

"The prison security is impenetrable with no phone calls. They ensure that nothing gets in or out without approval," said Yildiz. She also tried writing letters but found out that the guards never passed them on. "I just wrote him a simple letter telling him I miss him, but nothing got through."

Santawy’s detention has been renewed four times without him or his lawyer being present, or being able to challenge the legality of the detention.

Santawy's friend Patrick Zaki George, a gender studies masters' student from the University of Bologna, Italy, was also arrested for similar terrorism charges in February 2020. In April this year, the Italian senate voted to grant him citizenship, hoping this will contribute to negotiating his release.

Yildiz hopes that the Austrian government could do the same for her Santawy.  

"For us in Europe, it is hard to imagine that people are arrested for studying gender topics, but this is unknown and threatening territory for Egyptian authorities. What we are witnessing means his work is very very important."

Yildiz has paused her PhD and is now making illustrations to accompany Santawy's texts that she plans to publish. "He was born to be a storyteller. My favourite moments with him were when he would hold me in his arms while telling me stories before I fell asleep."