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Hunger striking atheist blogger 'on deathbed' after being barred from leaving Egypt to marry fiancee

Ahmed has been on hunger strike for nearly a month [Facebook]

Date of publication: 26 November, 2019

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Egypt has detained a Coptic activist and secular blogger in recent months.
One of Egypt's best-known atheist bloggers says he was prevented from leaving the country in October to marry his fiancee in Tunisia, with the activist launching a hunger strike to protest against the government's unexplained travel restrictions.

Ahmed Harkan's supporters say his life is in peril after he went on hunger strike in October to protest against the travel ban, amid fears that his death could be imminent.

He has been hospitalised twice since the start of his strike.

Ahmed Harkan is a well-known secular activist in Egypt, where he has openly advocated for religious freedom in television interviews.

"I want to tell the free world that I'm lying here on my deathbed just because I'm an atheist, [in front] of the eyes of a government that claims to be fighting terrorism," Harkan said in a statement shared with The New Arab.

'Deathbed'

Harkan has been barred from leaving Egypt three times over the past three years, despite no court ordering a travel ban on the activist.

On 21 October, he was briefly detained after trying to leave the country to wed his Tunisian fiancee. Harkan has refused food since, with one image shared online showing the activist lying on a stretcher in a hospital corridor with a drip attached to his arm.

Activists say that police officers have visited him at the hospital and insulted Harkan, despite his grave condition.

"In my entire life I haven't caused harm to anyone," he said in a message posted on his website.

"All I wish is to be able to travel to my fiancee in order to get married. I have been on hunger strike since then. The only thing that will make me break it is to travel. I appeal to the free world to help me and to stand by my case."

Tactic of oppression

Activists believe Harkan's travel ban is a new tactic by the government to harrass activists into silence, in a country where any beliefs that deviate from mainstream orthodoxy are viewed with suspicion.

"The case of Ahmed Harkan illustrates how the Egyptian authorities have changed their repressive policies against well-known atheist activists like Harkan. Instead of arresting them and subjecting them to international criticism, they choose today to silence them by confiscating their most basic civil rights such as travel bans," Kacem El Ghazzali, an essayist and secular activist, told The New Arab.

"Atheists in Egypt remain (caught) between the hammer of state persecution and the anvil of society's rejection and death threat."

Andrew Copson, president of Humanists International, said that the thoughts and ideas of people like Harkan are being demonised by states who consider them to be a threat to social order.

"The prevention of travel by secularist activists, or humanists who simply speak their mind well within the limits of lawful freedom of expression, is a heinous and arbitrary abuse of human rights," he said in a statement.

"We must be allowed freedom of thought and expression and we call on the United Nations to pressure Egypt into repealing the unofficial travel ban on Ahmad Harkan, and on Egypt to desist in using this deplorable tactic against legitimate thought and opinion."

Harkan and his fiancee were assaulted by a mob at his home in 2014. When Harkan complained at a local police station he claims he was assaulted by officers and imprisoned overnight due to his atheist ideas.

Security forces in Egypt have launched a massive wave of arrests against Islamist, liberal and pro-democracy activists under President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

On Saturday, a Coptic rights activist was arrested at his home in Cairo by plainclothes police and accused of supporting a "terror group".

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bi-partisan body, comdemned Ramy Kamel's arrest.

"Egypt must... fulfil its claims of reform and steps toward religious freedom," it added, and also slammed the "apparent renewed crackdown on activists and journalists" in the country.

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