Human rights case overshadows start of COP27 climate change summit in Egypt

Global leaders are meeting at a pivotal conference in Egypt to discuss climate change, but human rights are overshadowing the beginning of the COP27 summit. The family of one of Egypt's most prominent political prisoners could die in detention within days, highlighting the Egyptian government’s widespread crackdown on its critics. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Global leaders are meeting at a pivotal conference in Egypt to discuss climate change, but human rights are overshadowing the beginning of the so-called COP 27 summit in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.

    The family of one of Egypt's most prominent political prisoners says that he could die in detention within days, highlighting the Egyptian government's widespread crackdown on its critics.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    No one better symbolizes Egypt's lost hope and its regime's repression than Alaa Abdel-Fattah. He is an activist and software developer who helped drive the 2011 revolution.

    But, in the last decade, he spent more than nine years in prison. Last December, he was sentenced to five years for what the regime called false news, highlighting human rights abuses. And now, after eating only 100 calories a day for seven months, he is refusing to drink even water.

    Sanaa Seif, Sister of Alaa Abdel-Fattah: It feels like he can't control his destiny, that someone has decided that's his destiny that he will die in prison. So, the only thing he can really control is the timeline. And he's, of course, choosing the timing that will be the most embarrassing to the Egyptian authorities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sanaa Seif is Alaa's younger sister and herself a prominent human rights activist who has been jailed three times in the last decade.

    Overnight, she arrived at the site of COP 27 to pressure international leaders to get her brother released.

    Are you worried he could die?

  • Sanaa Seif:

    I'm really worried he could die. I'm — I respect his decision. And I think it's — I think it's the right decision. I understand where he's coming from. And I agree that this is not a life worth living, neither for him or for us, really, his family outside.

    But, as a sister, I cannot give up hope. I still have hope.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    No Egyptian family has fought for justice more tirelessly than the Seifs. Their late father, Ahmed, was the country's leading human rights lawyer. Middle sister Mona is currently campaigning for Alaa in London.

    Their mother, Laila, has protested against six governments over 42 years. She was born in London. And, last year, Alaa was granted British citizenship. New British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is attending the climate conference and today met Sisi.

    A British official says in a statement Sunak raised Alaa's plight, "expressing his serious concerns about this case and calling for Alaa's release."

    State Department spokesman Ned Price today didn't go that far.

  • Ned Price, State Department Spokesman:

    We have made the point to the Egyptians that improvements when it comes to issues of human rights only serve to strengthen the basis of the bilateral relationship.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Is the British government, is the West doing enough to try and help your brother?

  • Sanaa Seif:

    No. I'm worried that they're realized the urgency too late. I can see that they feel the heat, but they're still very timid when it comes to raising human rights concerns.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Human rights organizations accuse Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, of imprisoning more than 60,000 Egyptians across society.

  • Sameh Shoukry, Egyptian Foreign Minister:

    I believe that we should all concentrate on the task at hand.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today at the conference, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry suggested to CNBC there would be no diplomacy to release Alaa.

  • Sameh Shoukry:

    It was dealt with within the penal system, within the rules and regulations.

  • Sanaa Seif:

    We're suffocating. There is no breathing room here. The people who are going to create action and to create pressure on our policymakers and our oil companies to operate better towards the climate are the same people who are now languishing in Egyptian prison.

    In order to get any action towards the planet, you need to have space for people to speak up. You need to have sacred space. And that does not exist in Egypt.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    World leaders are trying to avoid the death of the planet, but, if nothing is done, their work could be overshadowed by the death of one man.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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