Several days ago Germany rejected a request by the Egyptian government to extradite famed Al Jazeera anchor Ahmed Mansour for imprisonment for 15 years following his “trial” and conviction in absentia. Germany’s decision to break with fairly settled international law speaks volumes about the nightmare that has become Egypt, a now rogue state with a corrupt judiciary owned by a despot who looks upon human rights, free speech and association as little more than mere impediments as he accumulates more and more personal power and control in the largest and oldest continuing Arab state.
I know Ahmed Mansour very well and have for a long time. We have been close friends for about a decade. I have appeared on his wildly popular internationally acclaimed one-on-one television show “Open Borders” three times- in Doha, Beirut and Cairo. Last year, I was to make a fourth appearance on his show in London to discuss the complaint that I filed with a group of other international human rights lawyers against Egypt in the African Union for its arbitrary and criminal closing of the Rafah border crossing to refugees, relief workers and humanitarian aid during Israel’s most recent illegal onslaught on Gaza. However, I could not appear because of my ill fated efforts to negotiate the release of American hostage Abdul Rahman Kassig- who was subsequently executed by ISIS.
Erudite, forceful and contentious himself, Ahmed does not suffer fools lightly. His shows are anything but the typical main stream media sound-bite or institutional puff pieces. He asks tough questions about timely, explosive issues of often controversial guests. To spend an hour and a half with Ahmed live in front of an audience of millions is not easy- he is extraordinarily smart, prepared to the smallest of points and routinely asks questions of his guests very much on the minds of his engaged audience, but not at all the irrelevant ones that the power brokers want asked let alone answered. Ahmed is not a mouth piece. Party line is not his party- truth is. His shows touch the heart, soul and moods of the day to many in regions of the world where each moment itself breathes with the beat of the street and can suddenly become a profound issue of life and death with implications that extend far beyond the borders of the Middle East, the Gulf and Africa.
The shows that I appeared on fit that bill- they ranged from discussions about international law and human rights to national liberation movements such as Hamas and Hezbollah to the plight of various political refugees, to lawsuits that I and others had filed for war crimes and human rights abuses against repressive regimes such as Israel, the United Sates and Egypt. Although the suits in particular were and are (some still pend) highly technical, Ahmed welcomed the subtleties of the action and nuance of the proceedings and pursued them in a way which not only brought a face to the victims and their claims, but generated tremendous audience interest and on-air participation. Ahmed is very much the modern day pamphleteer who stands on the 21st century street corner and shouts out challenges to traditional notions in a way that leaves the listener educated and then free to draw his or her own conclusion about important people, places and events.
As if yesterday, I can remember well one occasion when I was in Cairo not long after Ahmed, an Egyptian himself, had done a show which called to task the brutal, indeed deadly Mubarak tyranny of some 40 years; it was not the first time that he had done so. Not long after leaving the studio, he was viciously assaulted by a group of thugs who shouted out that it was retaliation for his anti-Mubarak sentiments. Fleeing from the assault, battered and bloodied, Ahmed returned to the studio interrupted the live on-air show and with blood streaming down his face told the world that he would not be silenced in speaking truth to power. Only then did he leave to receive badly needed medical attention.
Off air, over the years Ahmed and I have stayed in touch whether by emails and calls just to say hello and talk of personal matters or to discuss the political issues of the day. Whenever our schedules permit, we see each other usually in the Middle East and Gulf States. In fact, before travelling to the region, I always reach out to him to learn his own schedule before booking mine so that we can spend some time together, if at all possible. Whether dining together, or going to a gallery opening, or having tea or simply walking through the streets of an age old Suq it is impossible to do so in anonymity with Ahmed – he is a rock star of the Arab world with one of its most widely recognized face and trusted voice. Often, complete strangers will approach him on the street to thank him for a show they had seen or to ask a question about its content or some other concern of the day. Ahmed does not walk away from a casual street-side greeting or a chance restaurant encounter, even from a complete stranger, until after he has exchanged a warm and earnest thanks and answered any questions they might ask.
In the two years or so since the military coup in Egypt that overthrew Mohammed Morsi – the first freely and fairly elected Egyption President since Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956 – Abdel Fattah el- Sisi has made many yearn for the “softness and justice” that was anything but under the blood stained tyrant Hosni Mubarak. Reliable sources both within and outside of Egypt report that since the coup in excess of ten-thousand political opponents have been murdered by the Sisi junta with ten times as many injured, detained and tortured. Opposition political parties have been banned with their leaders tried for various forms of “treason”, typically pure speech and association and nothing more. University associations have been closed with fortunate student activists merely expelled from schools, not murdered or disappeared. Free speech and association, never more than a hushed secret meeting of one under Mubarak, is now fully criminalized with violators disappeared for their audacity to think and speak out loud. In a series of mock mass trials, thousands have been convicted of political offenses with many hundreds sentenced to death including deposed President Morsi. These judicial lynchings which typically run but a few days from start to finish have been held behind closed doors or in crammed courts with few from the public permitted to attend. Like under Mubarak, hundreds of accused are tried at once with little or no access to counsel or a right to mount a defense. Kept in a mass cage built into the courtroom, the “witnesses” against them are little more than rank rumor, suspicion and association. Hundreds of others have been tried, convicted and sentenced, including some to death, in their absence and denied the most rudimentary of rights long recognized as essential to a fair trial under international law. Ahmed Mansour is one such victim.
Journalists have been particularly targeted under Sisi in his relentless witch-hunt against those who would challenge his autocratic and deadly will. Under his reign of terror, numerous newspapers, radio and TV networks have been closed or shows cancelled for nothing more than exposing and debating the Sisi policies in the light of day. While the staged case against Al Jazeera journalists Mohammed Fahmy, Baher Mohammed and Peter Gerste convicted and jailed for “airing falsified footage intended to damage Egyptian National Security” is well known, the persecution against Ahmed Mansour has not generated as much public exposure until recent events in Germany.
Since the nightmare began, Ahmed Mansour has been consistent and principled in his public and professional opposition to the Sisi coup and the deadly, pervasive state of siege that has ensued. Unlike those who have sought personal safety in the quiet of their muted voice, Ahmed has roared wherever and whenever possible against the generals that once again control Egypt after the all too brief taste of freedom that followed the successful revolution against Hosni Mubarak.
Little is known about the charges brought against Ahmed by a special obedient state prosecutor other than he was accused of torturing a lawyer in Tahrir Square in the final days of the successful 2011 revolution against Mubarak and his military state. Interestingly, the accusations themselves were not pursued let alone filed against him until after the Sisi coup several years later. What is however now known is that the accusation points to deep irregularities in its “investigation” which not only ignored established criminal and judicial protocols and procedures but was based upon nothing more than rumor, unreliable hearsay, and innuendo emanating from political sources and opponents who had long seen Ahmed as a voice to be silenced, and set about to do just that.
To know Ahmed is to know that the accusation is baseless. To follow Ahmed is to know that he has never found comfort in violence of any sort at any time. To be free, independent and untouched by the evil and hatred that is very much the Sisi regime today, is to know that the accusations against Ahmed Mansour do not possess a single ring of truth.
And what of the underlying court proceeding itself ? Tried in secret, in absentia, without notice, counsel, or a meaningful opportunity to be heard, and lacking in any recognized judicial safeguards, Ahmed’s persecution like so many others in Egypt in this day and age and, before, under the predecessor tyranny called Mubarak, are routinely rejected by the world community as so much a sham, a political vendetta lacking independence and trustworthiness. Indeed, as noted by the German government which refused Egypt’s request to extradite Ahmed, “Egypt’s judicial system is politically motivated.” Not long before, the African Union, of which Egypt is a member state, concurred in that finding specifically taking note that the Egyptian judiciary is politically controlled and corrupt. In that matter, the AU rejected an Egyptian claim that a complaint lodged against it in that forum need first be litigated in domestic Egyptian courts and only then could proceed to an international tribunal. Finding the generally applicable doctrine of domestic exhaustion irrelevant, it noted that it would be a futile and unnecessary step given the fact that Egypt’s courts are essentially a judicial imposter.
Years ago in the final days of his journey, my godfather, a renowned union organizer and president, human and civil rights and anti-war activist and advisor to Martin Luther King, commented to me that at day’s end one can measure the success in their activist life not by the honors bestowed upon them, or the friends that they keep, but rather, their enemies. To him, a so-called hater’s list was vindication of a life well lived; one committed to justice- to the despaired, the despised, the disaffected. Although enormously popular, indeed, revered by millions, Ahmed Mansour’s success as a thinker, a journalist, and an advocate for the truth is best exemplified by the rogues gallery of those who have tried to silence or to destroy him through beatings and mock judicial proceedings.
Long after the memories of Mubarik and Sisi have faded into the dust bin of infamy which they each so richly deserve, Ahmed Mansour will live on as a shining example of all to follow in his enormous wake of integrity and determination and through his fearless commitment to the truth.