There used to be a joke in Cairo that Egyptian presidents had two stock responses to an emergency: close the central Sadat metro station and arrest Alaa Abd El-Fattah. An activist in the Tahrir Square movement in 2011 (as well as the son of an important communist dissident), Alaa first experienced Egypt’s prison system in 2006 as a result of his street activism. After the 2011 uprising he was arrested again. Since the military coup in 2013 he has spent most of his time behind bars. He was today sentenced to a further five years for ‘spreading false news’.
Yiğit Aksakoğlu has been in jail in Turkey for four months. He and twelve others were imprisoned last November, awaiting trial on charges of ‘attempting to overthrow the government’ during the Gezi Park protests six years ago.
The other twelve have been released, but Yiğit – pronounced ‘Yeet’ – remains in the maximum security Silivri prison, west of Istanbul. He is held alongside Osman Kavala, now in his second year of arbitrary detention, and 14 others whom the Erdoğan government accuses of insurrectionary ambitions in a 600-page document of which only a few pages, lawyers say, have any legal significance.
It is March 2005. I am nine years old and my father has just been arrested for a crime he did not commit. He had volunteered at various charities that provided relief for civilians in war-torn Bosnia and Chechnya. He collected, sorted and sent food, medicine and clothing. The government says he sent those supplies to aid the enemy. He is charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Eight sets of T-shirts, socks, underwear: white. Trousers: blue. Sweaters: blue. If you’re going to visit Alaa in prison, don’t wear blue in case the guards mistake you for an inmate. It happens, his mother tells me in all seriousness. Do not wear blue. Three bottles of juice go in the freezer the night before each visit to keep fresh through the long hours between home and cell, the metal detectors, the waiting room, the transport vehicles in the prison complex, the bench in the sun outside Alaa’s inner prison building. ‘His father was in that one.’ His mother points at the building next to her son’s.
On my first day in prison, trying to make me feel better, my fellow inmates listed the advantages of our particular prison, and our particular ward: most of the inmates were senior civil servants, businessmen, judges, police and army officers. Each ward can take sixty prisoners and the prison has nine wards. ‘We’re all respectable people,’ my colleague said, ‘and the administration here is respectable too.’ I said nothing. ‘And even Alaa Seif is here,’ he said, ‘in the ward across the corridor.’