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Egypt: PEN International joins call for the release of film-maker and writer Sanaa Seif

Tuesday 4 August 2020 - 10:51am

PEN International

Sanaa Seif - Source: Private

Sanaa Seif, an Egyptian film-maker and writer, has been in prison since June 2020 for investigation for offences including ‘false news’ and ‘terrorism’. Her detention is related to her activism on behalf of her imprisoned brother, Alaa Abd El Fattah, and for other political prisoners. PEN International joins Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, English PEN, PEN America Artists at Risk Connection and other global human rights and arts organisations, alongside over 200 writers, artists and activists in condemning Seif’s arrest and call for her release.

The petition published 4 August 2020 is as follows

The abduction of Sanna Seif

On June 21st 2020 Sanaa Seif, along with her mother and her sister, were sleeping on the pavement outside Tora Prison in Cairo.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Egyptian authorities have put prisons into an information blackout. Sanaa and her family were there to insist on their simple legal right to receive a letter from Sanaa’s brother, the well-known activist and blogger, Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been held without trial since September 2019, having already - and recently - completed an unjust five year sentence.

The following morning, June 22nd, they were attacked by a group of plainclothes women who took instruction from the prison guards and policemen. They were severely bruised, had most of their possessions stolen and Sanaa suffered an injury to her head.

The next day, June 23rd, they went to the Public Prosecutor’s Office to report the incident, and it was then that Sanaa was abducted by plainclothes policemen. Torn from her lawyer and pushed into an unmarked minivan, she was taken to Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution, which is notorious for detaining political opponents and critics in prolonged pre-trial detention over unfounded “terrorism” charges. Prosecutors questioned Sanaa and ordered her detention pending investigations over charges of “spreading false news”, “inciting terrorist crimes” and the “misuse of social media”. Neither Sanaa nor her lawyer were allowed to see her file.

Sanaa is a film editor, writer and activist. She worked on the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square, and the award-winning film In the Last Days of the City. She is just one of hundreds of artists, lawyers, journalists, LGBTQ+ people, writers, publishers, librarians and translators held in prison in Egypt today.

Sanaa is the latest in a seemingly unending series of arrests that have come to define president Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s rule. Tens of thousands of politically motivated detentions have been documented by human rights organisations; at least 16 new prisons have been built in the Sisi era. Meanwhile, courts and prosecutors have been extending the pre-trial detention of detainees without their presence in court. Thousands have found themselves trapped in endless cycles of administrative detention, renewed indefinitely, without ever going to trial.

In June this year, Sarah Hegazy, unable to recover from her detention and torture, took her own life. She had been arrested for flying a rainbow flag at a concert.

In May, Sanaa’s friend Shady Habash, a 24-year-old film director who was involved in making a music video critical of Egypt’s president, died after prison authorities failed to provide him with medical care. He had ingested alcohol sanitizer. He had been held for over two years in pre-trial detention. A few months before his death he wrote:

“I need your support and I need you to remind them that I’m still in prison and that they’ve forgotten me and that I’m dying slowly each day because I know I’m standing alone in the face of everything and I know I have a lot of friends who love me and are afraid to write about me or think I’ll come out anyway without their support. I need you and I need your support more than ever.”

The solidarity of the international community is needed now more than ever at this time of unprecedented breakdown of accountability.

Together, we call on the Egyptian authorities to immediately release Sanaa, Alaa and all those detained for peacefully exercising their rights.

We call on the Egyptian government to end the abuse of pre-trial detention.

And we call for a global assertion of the rights of all people to live in dignity and justice.

Institutional co-signers

Amnesty International

Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art

Artists at Risk

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

Electronic Frontier Foundation

English PEN

EuroMed Rights


Human Rights Watch

Index on Censorship

The International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (ICFR) and its founding organizations:

  • the European Film Academy (EFA),
  • the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR),
  • The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA).

International Documentary Organization (IDA)

PEN America, Artists at Risk Connection

PEN International


Société des réalisateurs de films – SRF

Sundance Institute


For details of individual artists, writers, film-makers and others who have signed the petition, view a moving video on Sanaa Seif’s arrest and to add your name to the petition yourself, go to:

For more information, please contact Sara Whyatt, Asia Programme Coordinator, at PEN International, Koops Mill Mews, Unit A, 162-164 Abbey St, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: