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Jailed Egyptian journalist runs for union elections from behind bars

Hisham Gaafar's family applied on his behalf so he can compete to join the board of Egypt's Journalists Syndicate
Gaafar has been in pre-trial detention for more than three years (Facebook)

The family of jailed Egyptian journalist Hisham Gaafar has announced his run in the Journalists Syndicate board elections scheduled next month.

Gaafar, 55, former editor-in-chief of the IslamOnline website, has been in solitary confinement awaiting trial since October 2015 on charges of receiving funds from foreign agencies to harm national security and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in Egypt. 

Amnesty International says the charges against Gaafar are "trumped up," with rights advocates pointing out that he has served the two-year maximum pre-trial detention period legally allowed in the country.

Pre-trial detention for journalists was briefly repealed by former president Mohamed Morsi but the practice was then reinstated after the July 2013 coup against him.

If convicted, Gaafar could face life in prison.

His decision to run in the election is symbolic of calls to stop the detention of journalists, according to his wife, Manar Eltantawi, and a press release from his family.

"We consider his candidacy part of our struggle as a family representing the suffering of journalists," the statement said.

His family also said the three goals of his electoral programme, the details of which will be announced soon, are "dignity, freedom and protection".  They may field him as a candidate for the syndicate's presidency.

Gaafar is currently detained in the notorious Aqrab (Scorpion) prison and suffers from optic nerve atrophy in both eyes and an enlarged prostate, conditions that have only worsened due to his solitary confinement, his family has said. They have have been barred from visiting him for over a year.

The union's bylaws permit applications from detained journalists who have not been convicted of any crimes.

Ahmet Attar, the spokesperson of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, said Gaafar's application is a symbolic step that has been taken before by other detained journalists like Hassan el-Kabbani and Magdy Hussein as "an act of resistance".

"If his application is accepted, it will be a message for Egyptian authorities that Gaffar is a journalist, not a criminal, and that Egyptian journalists are showing solidarity with their detained colleague," he told Middle East Eye.

According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 32 Egyptian journalists are currently detained in Egypt, ranked 161st in the RSF 2018 press freedom index.