'We need to keep Kareem in our thoughts'

On the first anniversary of his imprisonment, the 'Free Kareem' campaign launched another worldwide campaign today to draw attention to jailed Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer.
Kareem Amer. R.R.

BEIRUT/CAIRO, Feb. 22, 2008 (MENASSAT) - It was on February 22 last year that Egypt sentenced its first cyber dissident to prison. Kareem Amer, a then 21-year old former law student at the Islamic Al-Azhar University had published writings on his blog karam903.blogspot.com that posed strong criticism to his Alma Mater and the regime of president Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian authorities decided it was time to pull the plug on the cyber-dissident. An Alexandria court sentenced Amer to four years in prison for "defaming Islam and President Mubarak."

The blogger is currently spending his days at Burj al-Arab prison outside Alexandria, "a notorious institution for criminals," as one activist describes the facility.

Over the past year, international rights groups as well as foreign politicians and policy makers have urged the Egyptian authorities to release Amer.

Egyptian foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit offered in response that he rejects interference, "by whoever it may be," in Egypt’s affairs.

In commemoration of Friday’s one-year anniversary of Amer’s sentencing, the online campaign ‘Free Kareem’ held a global ‘Kareem Day’ in an effort to spur awareness of the case and make ‘people not forget’ about the imprisoned blogger.

Activists planned rallies outside the Egyptian embassies in Washington DC, Paris, and London and the campaign organizers urged writers to submit opinion articles on Amer’s case in newspapers and student publications.

It is not the first time the group puts on advocacy events for Amer. Last year, they managed to organize simultaneous protests in ten world capitals, including Paris, New York, Stockholm, and London. 

This year, however, the team has shifted its strategy somewhat to increase its impact.

“We want to make this day as effective as possible and therefore we have changed our strategy from last year. Instead of holding worldwide rallies we have chosen three strategic cities for the demonstrations. We are also targeting the media and hope to enforce our message through the newspapers' opinion pages,” Esr’a el-Shafei, Director of the Free Kareem Coalition said in an interview with MENASSAT.

El-Shafei emphasized that it is particularly important for the group to target the U.S. media and institutions because of "America’s strategic influence on Egypt."

“Billions of dollars are being sent to Egypt from the U.S. We want to pressure the Egyptian authorities to understand that keeping Kareem in prison is harming their image,” continued Al-Shafei. “I believe the Egyptian government is aware it is being pressured on the matter”.

The physical and psychological condition of Amer himself remains a constant worry to the activists.

El-Shafei expressed concerns about Kareem’s state saying that it was "a while ago" since she heard from him.

“I’ve heard he is doing better. We are sending him letters but we don’t know if he is receiving them. For every three letters we send him we usually get one back ,” said Al-Shafei.

Egyptian blogger Wa7damasrya (Egyptian girl) stays in regular touch with Amer and is one of the few who has been able to visit him in jail.

“I am very close to him. It’s very hard to visit him in prison. I think I’ve gone three times now. You have to be there very early and they make you wait for a long time,” she told MENASSAT in a phone interview.

The last time Wa7damasrya visited Amer in prison she waited six hours and was able to meet with him for less than fifteen minutes.

She also said it has been a while since she last heard from Amer. 

“I received a letter from Kareem on February 6 but it was sent to my house in Alexandria  instead of Cairo where I live, so I haven’t been able to read it yet. It’s a risk for my family. They don’t like that I am receiving letters from prisoners,” Wa7damasreya said.

Life in prison is very hard for Amer but Wa7damasrya points out that the blogger always brightens up when he receives visits.

During her visits, Wa7damasrya always brings Amer books as she knows he is an avid reader.

“Kareem loves books. I always try to bring a book with me when I go to see him. Last time I brought him a book by Naguib Mahfouz”.

However, the blogger said that Burj al-Arab is filled with crooks and criminals. “Kareem is surrounded by criminals. The guards are hitting the prisoners with batons,” she said.

Amer himself recently claimed in a letter to his lawyers than he had been subjected to abuse by another inmate and a guard inside the prison.

His lawyers from the Cairo-based NGO Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo) said that Amer was beaten and then transferred to solitary confinement where he was shackled and assaulted. One of his teeth was allegedly broken during the abuse. 

The organization has previously stated that the incident was ordered by a prison investigation officer.

Amer’s legal advisers have raised the case with the General Prosecutor but there have been no reports on an investigation into the matter.

When asked how the public can help Amer, Wa7damasrya told MENASSAT that "sending him letters and books" is always a good idea.

El-Shafei restated the importance for people "not to forget about Kareem" and "to keep him in your thoughts."