CAIRO — "Wednesday isn't blue?"
Ayman looked at me like I'd gone mad.
"Ok, what about your name. Isn't it sort of reddish?"
"Have you lost it?" he replied with a snort, sure I was joking.
I enthusiastically started to explain the phenomenon which I'd just been reading about in a book exploring the secrets of the human mind, Incognito. That phenomenon is called synesthesia, and those who have it experience associations between certain cognitive or sensory stimuli such as numbers, names, days of the week, words in general, even sounds and smells — and colors. It had amazed me to read a detailed description of something I'd experienced since I was a child, without realizing there was anything unusual about it.
As a young boy I desperately wished — like most children my age — for a superpower. I tried to fly, I attempted to move objects using the force of my mind. But only now had I got what I wanted: synesthesia, my very own superpower.
"What about Saturday, then?," asked Ayman.
"Sunday?" He was enjoying the game.
I think back on this memory as I press my face against the metal grille of the window of the police van in which I sit, alone. It was four years ago; I haven't seen Ayman for two years. I'm thinking about it now because, with the tumult of feelings inside me, I'm seeing another dimension to this superpower: emotion.
Injustice, brown as wet mud. Torment, a rusty red. Anger, blackish blue like an ink blot.
I'm on my way back from the Tora Prison hospital, where I've had an unusual swelling in my finger removed. In the detention room at the hospital, I ask about Ammad. When I describe him, they say they know him. Then they tell me he's dead.
The ink blot explodes again behind my eyes. I try to push the memory away: anger stains the soul just like an ink blot spoils the page.
I force my eyes to focus on the street outside, which I haven't seen for two years. The most trivial things provoke multitudes inside me.
I never imagined I'd miss them so much.
A man walking. Another talking on the phone. A bunch of guys standing around a drinks cooler. Two young women on their way home from somewhere, or maybe going, I can't tell. Cats eating from an overflowing bin. Cars speeding past, kinds I know and others I'm seeing for the first time.
Trivial things. Wretched. Painful. I never imagined I'd miss them so much. I'm filled with a nostalgia that's tinged with rusty red.
Will I one day go back to seeing these things like others do? Or will the metal grille always interpose itself, until I die?
Do I have any hope of settling back in to life, of forgetting and wiping clean? Or will this sense of alienation be a loyal friend who walks arm in arm with me, promising never to leave my side?
I get out of the van and unconsciously hold out my arm for someone to undo the handcuff around my wrist. I enter the prison deep in thought. I glimpse some families watching me with pity and sympathy. Their gazes remind me of the look of the doctor talking to me, a few hours ago, during the operation.
I've pursued nothing in my life that would make me an object of pity.
I hate looks of pity. I'd prefer people to look at me with hatred — that way I can despise them. When they look at me with pity, I despise myself.
I've pursued nothing in my life that would make me an object of pity.
I lie on my back in the cell and stare up at the ceiling. A line from a children's hymn I used to like comes to mind: "Do not fear, for the wound will heal. And the darkness of the night won't last too long."
Maybe the wound will heal, I think, but the scars won't fade.
When I close my eyes, the inside of my eyelids is a muddy brown.
Editors' Note: 22-year-old student Abdelrahman al-Gendy was arrested from a car in Ramses Square, Cairo, with his father in October 2013, a few months after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. They were charged, along with over 60 others, of murder, attempted murder, vandalism, possession of weapons and disturbing the public peace, and were sentenced to 15 years in prison, five years probation and a LE20,000 fine by the Cairo Criminal Court on September 30, 2014. In March 2016, their final appeal was rejected by the Court of Cassation. Gendy's father was released by presidential pardon last year, but his son remains in prison.
Gendy had won a scholarship to study engineering at the German University in Cairo and was not yet 18 years old when he was arrested. He lost his place at the university as a result of his imprisonment, and is currently enrolled at Ain Shams University and studying from Tora Prison.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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