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El-Sisi Pardons Arab Spring Activist After Nearly a Decade in Prison

Egypt’s president on Saturday pardoned a prominent democracy activist serving a 15-year prison sentence for his role in protests that followed the 2011 revolution, according to the activist’s lawyer and Egyptian state news media.

The pardon decree by the president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, was the latest in a string of high-profile prisoner releases by his regime.

The activist, Ahmed Douma, a blogger and protest leader, was one of the best-known faces of the 2011 uprising that toppled the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. A court sentenced Mr. Douma to 25 years prison in 2015 on charges of rioting and attacking the security forces, a punishment later reduced to 15 years. Rights groups called the accusations a cover for a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent by Mr. el-Sisi.

Mr. Douma’s lawyer, Khaled Ali, announced on social media Saturday that his client had been released from Badr Prison outside Cairo.

The Egyptian authorities did not provide any public explanation for the timing or rationale behind the presidential pardon. But over the past year, Mr. el-Sisi’s government has sought to show a commitment to greater political openness in the run-up to the country’s 2024 presidential elections by engaging in dialogue with the opposition and releasing some political prisoners.

The United States has linked about $320 million of its $1.3 billion in military aid provided annually to Egypt on human rights benchmarks, including the release of political prisoners. On Aug. 10, several Democratic representatives wrote to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to urge him to withhold the aid until more progress was made.

Two other well-known Egyptian political prisoners — Mohammad el-Baqer, a rights lawyer, and Patrick Zaki, a graduate student — were released last month after years in prison. Both had been accused of “spreading fake news,” a charge frequently leveled against perceived opponents of the government.

Mr. Douma was arrested in 2013 for insulting then-President Mohammed Morsi, a democratically elected leader, and was given a six-month suspended sentence. After Mr. el-Sisi wrested power from Mr. Morsi in a military coup in early July 2013 amid mass protests, Mr. Douma was again arrested, this time for demonstrating against the new dictatorship.

In December 2013, he was sentenced alongside two other leading pro-democracy activists to three years in prison. While serving that sentence, he was tried again over clashes with the security forces in late 2011, and had remained in prison ever since.

Egyptian rights advocates welcomed Mr. el-Sisi’s decision to pardon Mr. Douma. But tens of thousands of political prisoners remain incarcerated, said Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a rights group.

“The arrests continue and far exceed the number of those released,” Mr. Bahgat said. “It’s like emptying the sea with a spoon.”

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