Egypt detains Indian activist on climate march ahead of COP27

Ajit Rajagopal was detained together with a lawyer as he walked to COP27 holding a ‘March For Our Planet’ banner.

View of a COP27 sign on the road leading to the conference area in Egypt's Red Sea resort.
Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh will host the COP27 summit kicking off on November 6 [Sayed Sheasha/Reuters]

Egyptian security forces have detained an Indian environmental activist on a peaceful march from Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh, amid an ongoing crackdown ahead of a COP27 climate summit that kicks off on November 6 at the Red Sea resort.

Ajit Rajagopal was released on Monday after spending more than 24 hours at a police station in Obour, about 35km (22 miles) northeast of Cairo.

He had set off on Sunday with the intent of walking 260km (162 miles) on foot, holding a banner that said “March For Our Planet” in reference to a caravan-foot march-style mobilisation that set off within Africa and spread globally.

The Indian activist was stopped at a checkpoint in Obour and held at the local police station together with Makarios Lahthi, a friend and lawyer who had acted on his behalf upon the arrest.

Both men did not have access to food and water during the 24-hour-long detention and were denied the right to make a phone call, sources told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

Authorities requested a video-recorded account of what happened, but no charges were pressed.

Lahthi, an independent lawyer and human rights activist, was requested not to assist foreigners but rather to inform the authorities of their presence in Egypt, the sources said.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) issued a statement on Monday condemning the arrest, which lasted more than 24 hours in violation of the law.

The Cairo-based human rights organisation also criticised the Egyptian government, saying that it requested to host the Climate Summit while “the security restrictions prevent the simplest movements and manifestations of protest against the environmental crisis”.

The United Nations has drawn criticism from its own experts for hosting this year’s summit in Egypt, where the authorities under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are known to brutally crack down on civil liberties.

A panel of independent experts known as Special Rapporteurs last month said that “arrests and detention, NGO asset freezes and dissolutions and travel restrictions against human rights defenders … created a climate of fear for Egyptian civil society organisations to engage visibly at the COP27.”

Public protests are effectively banned in Egypt, following a crackdown on political dissent that began with the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi in 2013. El-Sisi, who was elected president in 2014, said security measures were needed to stabilise the country.

Egyptian authorities said protests would be allowed to take place in designated areas in Sharm el-Sheikh during the summit.

Campaigners claim they are being prevented from reaching the venue as well as obtaining accreditation to take part in the event.

Rajagopal had unsuccessfully tried to get accreditation for COP27. He told Reuters on Monday that he was still trying to secure a pass but did not intend to resume his march.

Social media users, including an exiled former construction contractor and actor, Mohamed Ali, made renewed calls for anti-government protests in Egypt during the two-week-long climate summit.

Mohamed Lotfy, director of the ECRF, told Reuters that at least 67 people have been arrested in Cairo and other cities in the past few days and have appeared in front of state security prosecution in relation to calls for protests on November 11.

Some were detained on charges including spreading false news after sharing content on a Facebook page calling for demonstrations, according to ECRF.

One of Egypt’s most prominent activists, Egyptian-British citizen Alaa Abd el-Fattah, was arrested during the 2019 crackdown and remains in prison more than 200 days into a hunger strike.

Abd el-Fattah will stop consuming honey, tea and milk from Tuesday and plans to stop drinking water from November 6, when COP27 opens, his family said.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg said she would not travel to Sharm el-Sheikh, “a tourist paradise in a country that violates many basic human rights”.

Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein wrote that “if last year’s summit in Glasgow was about ‘blah, blah, blah,’ this one’s meaning, even before it starts, is distinctly more ominous”.

“This summit is about blood, blood, blood. The blood of the roughly 1,000 protesters massacred by Egyptian forces to secure power for its current ruler,” she said, referring to the 2013 Rabaa killings of anti-coup protesters.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies