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Yara Sallam: Optimist against All Odds

On June 21, Yara Sallam was arrested, along with 30 others, during the dispersal of a protest calling for the repeal of the new anti-protest law, which has been used by the Egyptian government to arrest and imprison hundreds of activists and protesters since last November. She was arrested by men wearing plain-clothes and handed over to the police. It has become routine procedure that those arrested  do not merely face charges of participating in a demonstration without permit under the new repressive law, but prosecutors often add additional criminal charges which allow for their extended detention. Yara’s group is no exception; along with 23 others, she was indicted and charged with illegal protest, thuggery, and attacking public property. They were also initially charged with possession of explosive material, although this charge seems to have been dropped. The first hearing is tomorrow, June 29, 2014.

For the past week, I have been fighting off feelings of rage and helplessness at the sheer injustice suffered by my friend and at the thought of the nights she is spending in prison. But while we are feeling hopeless, Yara is keeping her smile and optimism. I have not been able to see her as I am abroad, but my friends who visited her tell me that she is smiling and joking. Hearing this came as no surprise; Yara is a determined optimist. No matter how hard it gets, she refuses to give in to depression and bitterness. Unlike most of us who have given in to feelings of despair as the political situation has worsened, Yara remains hopeful. Everything she does, both in her personal life and in her work and activism, is driven by a passionate quest for happiness. In a blog post, she wrote:

“I see no use in trying to change the status quo if it won’t lead me (and everyone else) to happiness, and I can’t see myself working for that purpose if I’m depressed. What kind of force do we push into a movement if it’s based on despair and helplessness? My life, if it can have any meaning at all or if it will be ever remembered, I want it to be about hope, laughter, joy, passion and love for life. My revolution is the same.”

I met Yara in 2009, when I started working at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). At that time, she was a researcher on freedom of religion and belief. Her work launched EIPR’s now well-known quarterly reports documenting violations to the right to freedom of religion across the country. Recalling Yara’s work then, Hossam Bahgat, the founder of EIPR, wrote on his Facebook page:

“One of the remarkable things about Yara is her ability to carry out professional work without losing sight of her feelings, which always appear on her face. I remember in 2009 when there were attacks on Bahais’ home in a village near Sohag, I came into Yara’s office while she was taking a testimony over the phone from a 70 year-old woman; the woman’s house had been burned down, she had been expelled from her village, and her only hope was to return to her home to die there. Yara hung up, put the phone down next to her, and started writing on the computer while bursting into tears.”

Yara’s strong feelings toward injustice are what motivated her to study law. In 2010, already in possession of two law degrees from the Cairo University in Egypt and the University of Paris I Sorbonne in Paris, she further obtained a Masters in International Human Rights Law from Notre Dame University in the USA. Following this, she went to the Gambia to work as a professional legal assistant at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

She was still in the Gambia when the January 25 revolution started. Despite the physical distance, she was constantly asking about her friends and family, keeping in touch with us to make sure we were all fine. As soon as she could, she came back to Egypt to participate in the revolution. She was recruited by Nazra, one of the leading feminist organizations in Egypt, and was asked to set up and manage Egypt’s first program on Women Human Rights Defenders.

In addition to running support services, initiating litigation and engaging in advocacy work, Yara also directly helped women who, like her today, were arrested in the vicinity of demonstrations. During the Council of Ministers clashes in December 2011, she spent days, barely getting any sleep, running from police stations to hospitals to the prosecution office, to support the women and girls who had been arrested and often tortured and sexually abused, making sure their families knew where they were taken, insisting on getting medical care to those who needed it, attending interrogations to prevent further mistreatment, and doing the impossible to secure their release. Her work with Nazra earned her the Africa Human Rights Defenders Award in 2014.

In 2013, Yara came back to EIPR to work on transitional justice. She also participated in documenting the latest wave of political violence since July 2013. As a friend and a colleague, I am continually inspired by Yara’s commitment and integrity. Yara is the kind of activist who rejects dogmatic beliefs and is always asking how we can be better at what we do. In her work as well as in her personal life, she is always eager to learn from others and listen to their experiences. After coming back from one of her latest conferences abroad, she was excited to tell me all about the inspiring activists she had met, about the conversations she had had with them, and about how they made her rethink her approach to transitional justice in Egypt.

Yara’s detention and indictment are an absurdity and a travesty of justice. So is the detention of all those that were arrested with her, and of the hundreds of others who have been imprisoned or sentenced as a result of their dissent with the current government and legislation like the protest law. Of even greater concern, during her interrogation, the prosecutor asked her about her work at EIPR—a sign that Yara may be targeted for her human rights work.

Despite my best efforts to remain hopeful like Yara is, I cannot help feeling scared for her safety. The situation in Egypt’s prisons is alarming to say the least. Torture and ill-treatment are routine, and according to Wikithawra, 53 people died in detention between July 2013 and May 2014more than one every week. The prison where she is currently held—Qanater prison—was the scene of violence and ill-treatment only a week ago.

Yara Sallam is an award-winning human rights defender dedicated to building a better Egypt for all its citizens. She should be immediately released. So should Mahienour El Masry—the only woman ever to win a human rights award while in prison—and the hundreds others who are currently detained on trumped up charges for expressing dissent.