(NEW YORK) – Marking five years of unlawful imprisonment for writing the lyrics of the song “Balaha,” Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy has started a hunger strike in Badr Prison to protest  inhumane conditions. He  joins over a dozen other activists on a hunger strike in Egyptian prisons on pre-trial charges, reflecting human rights abuses facing writers, artists and activists, including arbitrary imprisonment and deprivation of medical care.  PEN America called on Egyptians authorities to immediately release Galal El-Behairy, who has been held unlawfully since 2018 for exercising his freedom of expression.

“Galal El-Behairy’s continuing imprisonment and the revolving door of charges he faces–for writing a song–are an outrage, especially given that he has already completed a sentence on spurious charges. His decision to stop eating and taking his medication points to the cruel conditions in which he is being held, and the sense of hopelessness inflicted on him and other writers, artists and intellectuals detained in Egypt for their peaceful expression. Egyptian authorities should immediately release Galal El-Behairy, drop all charges against him, and end their retaliation against writers and artists,” said Justin Shilad, Middle East and North Africa specialist with PEN America’s PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Center.

““We are deeply concerned by recent reports that Galal El-Behairy is initiating a hunger strike after living behind bars for five years. All Galal did was pen the lyrics to a song, and yet he has been accused of terrorism. As the Egyptian government well knows, artistic expression is not a crime and Galal is not a criminal. He is an artist,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “Galal’s treatment is emblematic of the Egyptian regime’s disdain for artists and its campaign to crack down on artistic freedom and eradicate expression that they do not agree with. Our thoughts are with Galal and his friends and family during this difficult time. We urge the Egyptian regime to drop the absurd and baseless charges against him, and to release him from prison immediately.”

Egyptian authorities arrested El-Behairy on March 5, 2018, after he wrote the lyrics to a song by musician Ramy Essam, “Balaha,” the month before, and as he was preparing to release a book of poetry, “The Finest Women On Earth.” On July 31 of the same year an Egyptian military court sentenced El-Behairy to three years in prison and a 10,000 LE fine for insulting the military and spreading false news. Despite completing his sentence, El-Behairy remains behind bars in pretrial detention on separate charges brought by state security prosecutors of spreading false news and joining a terrorist group.

“Today, I start the sixth year in a life wasted in prisons, accused of shaming accusations, the least of which is lying and the worst is terrorism. Many crimes, of which I have not committed but one, which is poetry,” El-Behairy said in the statement announcing his hunger strike.

El-Behairy has announced that he will stop eating and taking antidepressant and heart medication, adding that he would eventually escalate his hunger strike to include refusing water. The #FreeGalal Campaign, advocating on his behalf, has expressed concern about his condition in prison. El-Behairy’s ordeal is one example of how Egyptian authorities continually bring new charges against writers and others critical of the government in order to keep them in pretrial detention indefinitely.

El-Behairy is far from the only writer who is languishing behind bars for his writing and peaceful expression.

He joins dozens of other activists, including Ala’a Abdel Fattah, who are continuously intimidated by being unlawfully held in prison on spurious charges and in dire conditions, under state supervision post-release, or, like Ramy Essam, are forced into exile. Regardless of the charges or the outcomes, the Egyptian government’s campaign against peaceful expression has the same outcome: silencing creative voices and shrinking the space for civil society.

Egypt ranked as the sixth worst jailer of writers globally in PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index—an annual count of imprisoned writers worldwide. In 2021 alone, Egyptian authorities held 14 writers and intellectuals behind bars, and the number is on the rise for 2022.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

About the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC)

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057