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Meet the Woman Determined to Save Her Brother from Certain Death in an Egyptian Prison

Mostafa Daly reaches out to Ahmed El Khatib's sister, Fatma, who recounts her brother's saga with Egypt's controversial security forces, which started with a prison sentence that may very well turn into a death penalty.

Since 2013, Egypt has been witnessing a staggering expansion in numbers of prisoners, which is driven by the political and social unrest the country has gone through in the wake of the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. After the Egyptian government labelled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation towards the end of 2013, thousands more were arrested on charges of affiliation with the group. On October 22nd, 2014, Misr University for Science and Technology (MUST) biology student Ahmed El Khatib, who was 19 at the time, was taken into police custody upon his arrival from Turkey after his student exchange programme ended.

He was charged with affiliation with a foreign terrorist group. An Egyptian court found El Khatib guilty and sentenced him to 10 years of hard labour and a EGP 100,000 fine in March 2016. After prisoners get final sentences, they get transferred to one of Egypt's high-security prisons, in El Khatib's case, it was the infamous Wadi El Natron prison. "Upon his arrival to Wadi El Natron, Ahmed was locked in a small cell with 80 other prisoners for 12 days. They were allowed two spoons of Foul per day, and only two visits to the bathroom. Because of lack of space, Ahmed and his cellmates had to take turns sleeping, or sometimes slept on top of each other. Ahmed stayed in this unsanitary condition for 12 days. "When we went to visit him towards the end of May 2016, he was in a really bad shape; he could barely walk, his face was yellow, and his body [in contrast with hot May weather] was ice cold," Ahmed El Khatib's sister, Fatma, says of that time in her brother's life.

Ahmed El Khatib as a MUST Sciences Student, 2013

On Monday June 6th, 2016, El Khatib was put in a regular cell, but his condition kept deteriorating. He lost his appetite, and along with it almost half his body weight, at which point, his sister started to get really concerned and began talking to doctors about El Khatib's symptoms, in the hope that she could find out what's slowly killing her baby brother. "One of the doctors asked me to bring him Ahmed's urine and blood samples, so he can run some tests. After several failed attempts and bribes, I managed to sneak in some tubes to Ahmed in October, and took them back to the doctor afterwards for testing. Everything looked alright, except that his blood tests showed an alarmingly low white-blood-cell-count," Fatma recounts. "Ahmed didn't want us to get concerned further and kept insisting we stop visiting him because he didn't want us to see him suffering."

Fatma repeatedly ignored her brother's request to stop visiting, and kept the test results from her family as to not frighten them. She kept trying to sneak in more test tubes, upon the doctor's request so he could monitor El Khatib's case and recommend treatment. The doctor initially diagnosed him with severe Anaemia, which later turned out to be far from the truth. "In December, Ahmed started suffering from uncontrollable intense coughing that kept him awake at night; exhausting him even more. The doctor prescribed a number of drugs, but we only managed to smuggle a few in. We watched his health deteriorate even further, something needed to be done."

In December 2016, the doctor informed Fatma that he suspects that her brother might be suffering from Leukaemia, after which Fatma submitted two written complaints to Egypt's prisons authorities and the National Council For Human Rights, requesting that her brother be temporarily transferred to a hospital in order to run cancer tests on him. The requests were ignored by both entities. "Until now, no one has gotten back to us despite several attempts from our side. I submitted both requests almost 4 months ago," she laments.

A copy of the receipt Fatma received after submitting the complaint, December 2016

Fatma couldn't stand by and watch anymore; towards the end of February, she took all the medical reports on El Khatib's condition to Wadi El Natron's prison's doctor. The doctor was instantly concerned and authorised EL Khatib's transfer to Torra Prison's Hospital, where the inmate got tested for cancer, but the test came back negative. The sonar and blood tests, however, showed that El Khatib had virtually no immunity, and that his internal organs were severely inflated. The prison's doctors carelessly diagnosed him - again - with Anaemia, declining to run more tests on him. "I wrote a complaint to the General Prosecutor's office and filed a police report in Maadi, accusing the prison authorities of deliberately ignoring my brother's severe illness," Fatma explains. "After which we launched an online campaign, calling for Ahmed's medical release or proper treatment."

The online campaign was pushed forward by Egyptian activists, slowly snowballing until it became a top trending hashtag on Twitter in the third week of March, and was then accompanied by an online petition calling for El Khatib's medical release. The campaign forced authorities to transfer El Khatib briefly to Qasr Al Ainy Hospital, where a team of specialised doctors finally found out what El Khatib really suffers from. "It took us a little less than a year to find out what's wrong with my brother because of all the bureaucracy and lack of fairness and humanity."

El Khatib was officially diagnosed with Leishmaniasis, which is a disease caused by a bite of certain types of sand fly, usually found in humid urban areas. The doctors suspected that El Khatib had contracted it from the overcrowded cell he was initially locked in at Wadi El Natron prison, and recommended a medical scan of the prison to know the extent of the infection. The disease attacks the body's internal organs and immunity system, almost always leading to death, unless vigorously and quickly treated. After the official medical report was released last week, El Khatib finally got transferred to Homeyat El Abassiya Hospital, news his family found out about on social media. "We immediately went to Homeyat El Abassiya hospital, upon hearing the news, but the police guard on the gate would not let us in, despite our desperate pleas. He wouldn't even let in food or clothes which my brother desperately needs. All we want is to make sure Ahmed is getting the treatment he needs; a medical team working around the clock, if he is to avoid death. We're not sure if that's what he's getting," Fatma concludes, adding that his family doesn't even care if he's released anymore, they just want him to get the medical assistance he needs, even if they're never allowed to see him.

Qasr Al Ainy Medical Report, March 2017

The case of Ahmed El Khatib is like many other Egyptian prisoners whose rights to dignified treatment and medical attention are overlooked, just because they're viewed as criminals and/or enemies of the state. No one is debating whether El Khatib's prison sentence is fair; we're not in a court of law and we don't know his court case from all perspective. But the right to medical treatment is something everyone earns by birth, and no one should have the right to take it away. In the meantime, his traumatised family continues to run out of means to stop their son from slowly wasting away.

You can sign the petition to demand that Ahmed El Khatib be released to receive the medical treatment he needs at a specialised hospital here.