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Wife of detainee urges Canada to put pressure on Egypt

Sarah Attia says her husband, Khaled Al-Qazzaz, is being treated inhumanely in an Egyptian prison, and that since he is a permanent resident of Canada, not a citizen, Ottawa can’t do much to help.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Sarah Attia last saw her husband Khaled Al-Qazzaz two weeks ago in the visiting room of the notorious Scorpion wing of Cairo's al-Aqrab prison which houses Egypt's top-level political prisoners.

Mr. Qazzaz, who met the Canadian-born Ms. Attia in 2000 when they were both doing master's degrees in chemical engineering at the University of Toronto, has been behind bars since July 3 of last year when he was scooped up with other members of the government of former president Mohammed Morsi.

He has spent weeks in solitary confinement in a cold, windowless cell. Sometimes his family had no idea where he was – or if he was even alive.

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But Mr. Qazzaz has never been charged, even though Egypt's military-backed interim government declared Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Ms. Attia and the couple's four children – the oldest is nine and the youngest is not yet two – returned to Toronto this week for a brief respite from the emotional trauma they have endured since Mr. Qazzaz was arrested.

"I left Cairo yesterday with a very heavy heart because I left him back there. And I have to go back," she said Tuesday in an interview from her family home in Mississauga. "I can't leave my husband in those conditions and be this far away from him."

Ms. Attia is pleading with the international community to speak out against the human-rights violations that the United Nations and other world bodies have said are being perpetrated Egypt's military regime.

Mr. Qazzaz is a permanent resident of Canada, but not a Canadian citizen. So the Canadian government can't offer him the same type of consular assistance it is providing to Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian journalist who has been jailed in Cairo since December on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. Fahmy's arrest has prompted an international rallying cry from those who say journalists should not be arrested for doing their jobs. Mr. Qazzaz, by contrast, had clear ties to the Morsi government.

But "what we are talking about here are basic human rights, basic human dignity," said Ms. Attia. "I think it's not much for me to ask, as a Canadian, for the international community, and specifically Canada, my homeland, to make a statement."

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Mr. Qazzaz has always been an idealist, said his wife.

"Khaled, in his five years in Canada, picked up a lot in terms of Canadian values," said Ms. Attia. "He was really influenced by his stay here. And when we went back [in 2005], we had made a commitment to do something in Egypt and we started an international school."

As the revolution started in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011, Mr. Qazzaz rushed to be part of the crowds calling for the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. He also joined Mr. Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party, which has strong links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

After Mr. Morsi was elected, Mr. Qazzaz became secretary to the president for foreign relations. There were times when he was called upon by international groups like Human Rights Watch to explain the jailing and alleged abuse of people opposed to Mr. Morsi's government.

Since Mr. Morsi's own ejection from government in a coup last year, the same human-rights groups are calling for fair treatment of his supporters including Mr. Qazzaz.

"He turned 34 on the day he was arrested," said Ms. Attia. "The kids waited for him to come home with his cake ready. And he didn't come home."

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It took two months for the family to find out he was being held in a military detention centre in Cairo. It took another three for the Egyptian government to acknowledge, under pressure from the international community, that he was in detention. Then he was moved to the Aqrab prison.

In October, Mr. Qazzaz's father – a 70-year-old man with a heart condition, diabetes and high-blood pressure – was also arrested without charge. He, too, has not been released. And the school, of which Ms. Attia is principal, is now being investigated by the Egyptians for alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Three weeks ago, 529 alleged supporters of Mr. Morsi were sentenced to death.

"I think that was one of the days when the international community woke up again and said what is going on in Egypt," said Ms. Attia. "I am calling for the Canadian government and the public to put pressure on the Egyptian military regime to provide Khaled with basic human rights, basic human conditions and to release him."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More


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