Those who believe in freedom: Yara Sallam

YaraPortraitOpen Democracy
NELLY BASSILY 23 July 2015

Yara Sallam is starting the second year of her sentence in Qanater Women’s prison outside Cairo. She says, “I do not feel any regret or self-defeat, the prison is not inside me.”  
Yara Sallam is starting her second year of detention in an Egyptian prison. No mother ever wants to see her child in prison, but Rawia Sadek is not letting her daughter’s incarceration bring her down.
For over a year now, Sadek has tried not to let the multiple security checks inside the jail, the uncomfortable waiting-time in the visiting room, or the fact that her daughter is even being called an inmate ruin the precious hour-long visits she has with her daughter. Sadek has also been writing about Yara and all unjustly detained prisoners in Egypt via social media and posting photos of her daughter along with the hashtag #FreeYara.
Yara is a 29-year-old women’s human rights defender from Egypt. Before she was detained, she was a transitional justice researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). On June 21, 2014, twenty-three young activists, among them Yara and six other young women, were arrested for protesting against a draconian anti-protest law.
The law was introduced in 2013 to prevent anyone from protesting without permission from the government. Ironically, Egyptian President Abel Al Fattah el Sisi’s current government wouldn’t be in power if brave and defiant young Egyptians hadn’t taken to the streets in protest to oust then President Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011.
Yara at a Khaled Said protest

Yara at a Khaled Said protest

Yara, as it turns out, wasn’t actually taking part in the unsanctioned protest when she was arrested on June 21. In fact, she was with her cousin, buying a water bottle inside a shop when they were arrested. Authorities released her cousin, but after police discovered that Yara worked with EIPR, she was referred to the prosecutor.
Yara and the 22 others activists who were arrested on that day have now completed over a year of their two year sentences. The Egyptian Appeal Court’s judgment handed down in December 2014 stipulates that their sentences will also be followed by two years of police surveillance.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organization Against Torture. Last December, the Observatory said in a statement that it considers that these activists are languishing in jail “solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly” and that their arbitrary detention and sentencing “only aim to sanction their legitimate human rights activities.”
“Yara is an honest person, and she was raised to do the right thing and everything she does, she does with passion. She cares not only about herself but is always thinking about others in everything she does.” That’s how Sadek describes her daughter.  Being a lawyer isn’t just a career Yara chose – it’s a calling.  Sadek remembers: “I used to tell Yara ‘you’re a lawyer’ but she would reply ‘No mum, I’m a rights defender.’ Even when she was just 14 years old, she was involved in an organization that defends children’s rights.”
Yara and 5 of the young women detainees who were arrested on June 21 2014 share a cell inside Qanater Women’s prison, 19-kilometers North of Cairo. When Sadek visited with Yara on June 9, Yara was feeling good that day. “Of course, there are times when she’s not happy, and not feeling good about her situation. But this time, she was happy and laughing,” she says.
At first, Sadek was afraid for Yara. She knows cases of abuse are rampant at the hands of state security forces and in Egyptian prisons. She feared that they would treat her badly or sexually abuse her in prison but Yara has confirmed that this has not happened.
Losing one’s freedom without justifiable cause is not easy, but Yara is strong. In a letter from prison she wrote: “I do not feel any regret or self-defeat, the prison is not inside me.”
Much like Mahienour El Masry, a well-known political activist who is currently detained in Alexandria, Yara is trying to make her time in jail meaningful. When a group of human rights defenders visited Qanater prison, she and Sanaa Seif(another well-known young activist who campaigned against military trials for civilians in Egypt) insisted on bringing attention to the case of a young woman who has been unjustly placed in solitary confinement. They also complained about the overcrowding in the prison.
When a prison warden asked Yara if they were treating her well, she told him that she was treated fine, but that others were not. “That says everything about Yara and about how she cannot stand idle in the face of injustice,”  says Sadek, “I can go on and on about how wonderful my daughter is.”
Radwa Medhat has worked as a colleague with Yara in the EIPR team and they are close friends. Medhat says that she is the most caring, thoughtful, funny, compassionate friend that anyone can have. “Yara’s time in prison is by far my worst nightmare and it has been going on for over a year now.  It means the disappearance of a very close friend and a colleague and it’s the ongoing feeling of guilt accompanying anything I do or enjoy.  It’s also the ongoing question of why her not me. To me nothing makes sense without her.”
Prison hasn’t changed Yara

“We don’t like prisons but we are not afraid them.” That’s a quote from Mahiehour El-Masry that Sadek holds dear to her heart. That quote keeps her grounded.  She says that a year in prison has not changed her daughter because Yara knows she did nothing wrong. She adds: “They are wrong for imprisoning her. They are the ones who don’t respect the law. The charges against her are fabricated.”
A friend of Yara’s, who was recently released from prison, jokingly told Sadek: “Prison is nice. Tell Yara she should tell the guards that prison is nice.” So, on one of her visits with Yara, Sadek gave her the message. Yara thought about it for a second and replied: “If I was outside of these prison walls, with everything that’s happening in the country, I would have felt guilty and helpless so, in that respect, maybe it’s ok that I’m in prison.”
Yara and the other young women serving the same sentence have remained cellmates, but many of the young women – who were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood for example –  are treated differently. They are separated and placed in cells with other offenders.
Inside and outside Egypt’s prison walls, injustice persists. More stories of young Egyptians being arrested, disappearing and being killed keep surfacing. It’s almost hard to keep track of them all. Sadek says ” they are not just numbers or random names. They all have faces, stories and feelings that we should know about. Yara says she knows people keep her story in the media but she wants all detainee stories to be just as talked about, if not more. Yara wants all those unjustly detained freed.”
Egyptian activists held two days of international solidarity actions with Egyptian political prisoners on June 20-21. They want to see an end to repression and worldwide-support for the various campaigns to free political prisoners in Egypt. Putting pressure on the Egyptian government to immediately end the  repression of protests, free political prisoners, stop the disappearances, conduct fair trials for all and put an end to abuse, torture and executions has never been more important than now.
Sadek doesn’t want her daughter or any of her cellmates to spend another year behind bars. She hopes for an early release without getting her hopes too high. She has to in order to keep going. As Yara and others continue to serve unfair and unjustified sentences, Sadek says her daughter is grateful for all the people who have continued to stand by her, support her, talk about her and pray for her.
Those who believe in freedom in Egypt have never rested. The fight continues.
About the author
Nelly Bassily is a Programme Associate with Young Feminist Activism. She has a degree in journalism from Concordia University,  Montreal. She works on a feminist community radio show called The Third Wave,profiling feminist news, initiatives and events from different corners of the globe, with a focus on gender-based violence, rape culture and reproductive justice.