The Siblings Fighting For Freedom Of Expression In Yemen

Nadia and Walid Al-Sakkaf
Nadia and Walid Al-Sakkaf
Flore Vasseur

For a long time, the only people interested in Yemen were Joseph Kessel and Al-Qaida. After the revolution that brought down 32 years of dictatorship, the interest of the West quickly waned, abandoning the country to its difficult political transition.

It is an exhausted country, without a vision nor a hope of something better and crippled by depressing figures: there is a 23 percent inflation rate, 35 percent of people are homeless, 40 percent live under the poverty line, 60 percent are illiterate, the majority of whom are women and therefore reduced to mere objects. One family however, a brother and sister rather, aims to reverse this trend in Yemen. Their purpose? Freedom of expression. Their army? The media they have created.

They have the same round, warm faces, the same quick gestures and natural authority that warrants respect. In the TED microcosm (Technology, Entertainment and Design), they are heroes. Their soft voices and smiles however do not betray their every-day fight.

To understand their vision, we must go back to 1991, when their father, Abdulaziz al-Sakkaf, an economics professor at the University of Sana'a and the founder of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, launched the first English-speaking weekly newspaper in Yemen, at a time when the country was going through a complicated unification.

Independent, the Yemen Times carved a place for itself in between the government run media and those of the opposition parties. Published in English in a largely illiterate country, it was aimed at the expat community. In 1997, the Yemen Times launched its online edition and in 1999, Abdulaziz organised the first Yemeni conference on human rights, where he was ready to reveal numerous cases of human rights violations. However, the day of the inauguration, he died in a suspicious car crash at the age of 48.

Finding ways around censorship

His son took over managing the online version of the weekly whilst his daughter was finishing her computing studies in India. They both carried on their father's wishes: Walid improvised as editor-in-chief whilst Nadia became the journalist. Walid created the, a parallel operation, which would become an autonomous portal to document all dissident opinion. He has been arrested, the newspaper has been put under surveillance and the Yemenportal censored. At night, he tried to invent software to get around the blocking of his site. He has become obsessed by censorship, fascinated by technology.

In 2009, he gave the reins of the Yemen Times to his little sister and decided to take action: he put his Al-Kasir software on the internet for free, improving it constantly. It has been downloaded more than 80,000 times all over the world, from Tunis to Beijing. Walid is perfecting it, whilst finishing his PhD on censorship at Orebro University in Sweden, an attempt to examine the full picture: "There's no point in getting excited over censorship if the Internet doesn't exist. So, my plan is to bring it to the Yemenis. I'm part of a multi-party, pan-Arab council on the governance of the Internet. We are going to meet in Kuwait to speed up the process of Internet access in the region. If we don't do it, no-one will." Why the web? "Because it's the only means of catching up. It's about freedom of expression, but also entrepreneurship," he exclaims. It’s a means of the getting the country out of a rut.

A bridge between cultures

The al-Sakkafs are the new faces of Yemen. They are part of a youth, often educated abroad, who instead of staying away, where life would be easier, chose to come home to make a difference in their community. But, Walid is the man in the shadows, the brother of the passionate activist that dazzled TED audiences last year. Nadia, 35-years-old, a heavy weight in independent journalism took the stage by surprise. Funny yet subtle, she explained: "I want to break stereotypes, to tell the history of my people in the language that the whole world understands. People have to stop putting labels on us." Why do they do that? "My father would often say that we are the bridge between cultures, between our country and the rest of the world. We must also defend human rights and help those that need us. We were brought up like that, both of us." Who changes the destiny of a young girl? Her father. Standing ovation.

In Sana'a, she campaigns about almost everything: her status as a woman, tribal culture, the apathetic population, the restrained freedom of expression, foreign journalists who come to Yemen for barely 24 hours and go home with clichés, an ineffective infrastructure, electricity blackouts. She knows no fear, doesn’t even think about it. "The current government is obsessed by its own survival. It doesn't have the time to bother with us."

Bringing down the veil

This small yet feisty woman has welcoming eyes, yet a razor sharp pen and an iron fist. "Within the newspaper, I'm the boss. When I arrived, I made half of the editing staff redundant because they didn't want to work for a woman.” Her role reaches way beyond the articles on terrorism, drones and corruption. She denounces arranged marriages for young girls, rapes in schools. She hires a lot of women, showing them different aspects of journalism, teaching them to express their opinions in a country that deprives them of civil liberties. "Little by little, I'm making them take off their veils. You can't interview someone if your whole face is covered."

The Yemen Times, with its 50 employees, is a press group that publishes an Arab version of the newspaper on the Internet, organizes forums, edits a monthly magazine on personal development, owns printing presses and is going to launch a radio station next autumn. It's not easy sailing: the expats all fled last year and the distribution of the Yemen Times has fallen dramatically. But Nadia is hanging on.

Entrepreneur, editor-in-chief, and mother for the second time, she is now slowly veering towards politics. Nadia has a clear idea of the next step: "If I become Minister of Information, I will campaign for the independence and the freedom of the media. Our father handed it down to us, but we have carved our own path: for Walid, his passion is technology, for me it's human rights. We want to give our people the means to have a better life. We have to change the culture, the behavior and beliefs. We want dignity." A face, a vision, a hope and an appeal, of course: "Before, I was alone, isolated, vulnerable," confesses Walid. "All that has changed with the Arab Spring. We are the first wave of activists. Please, we can't let it fail."

Walid and Nadia al-Sakkaf: remember their names. With a bit of luck, one of them will be president one day.

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Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


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