Pioneering Egyptian civil rights lawyer dies at 63


CAIRO | Ahmed Seif, one of Egypt’s most prominent civil rights lawyer and campaigner, died Wednesday from complications following heart surgery. He was 63.

Seif died in a Cairo hospital after spending nearly two weeks in an intensive care unit. He was one of Egypt’s leading rights campaigners, imprisoned in the 1970s and 1980s for his activism against government policies. He spent at least five years in prison, during which he was tortured.

After his release, Seif spoke out about his experience and campaigned against torture, which rights groups came to recognize as systematic in Egyptian prisons.

Seif also took up hundreds of court cases of activists and Islamists, and was a trainer for many of Egypt’s new generation of rights lawyers. He also was an inspiration for many of Egypt’s young political activists.

“Ahmed Seif is the professor for many generations of lawyers. He taught them what it means to be a lawyer and what it means to be human who defends human beings and their rights regardless of their political affiliation and beliefs,” Taher Abu el-Nasr, one of Seif’s students, said. “We have lost a human being in the true sense of the word. … This is hard to find now.”

Seif, a leftist, was vocal in his criticism and undeterred by the new crackdown on dissent following the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. He was one of the few rights lawyers who was not an Islamist who agreed to take up cases of detained Morsi supporters.

Justice “has become like rolling the dice. It depends on so many other things, not including the rule of law or how clever the defense is,” he told The Associated Press recently while criticizing a slew of sentences against protesters.

Among his last clients was his son, prominent blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who was sentenced to 15 years for violating a controversial protest law. Abdel-Fattah, who has been in and out of jail in the past three years for his anti-government activism, was granted a retrial but remains in detention and recently began a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment.

Seif’s younger daughter Sana Seif is also detained and on trial for protesting.

Both were not at his bedside when he died. Authorities granted them the right to briefly visit their father in hospital 10 days ago.

“Pray for (Sana) and (Alaa) who might learn the news tonight in prison, deprived of the support of family and friends,” Ahdaf Soueif, a prominent writer and Seif’s sister-in-law, wrote on Twitter.

Seif was also prominent among the global rights community.

Neil Hicks of U.S.-based Human Rights First called Seif “one of the pioneers of the human rights movement” in Egypt.

“Ahmed Seif’s legacy, and the achievement of which he was most proud, rests in the courageous, idealistic young people who have been at the forefront of popular protests for human dignity in Egypt in recent years,” Hicks said in a statement.

Seif’s family was a major force in the 2011 revolt that toppled longtime Hosni Mubarak, and subsequent anti-government protests.

Besides his two imprisoned children, Seif is survived by his wife, Laila Soueif, a university professor who is also an active campaigner. Seif’s third child is Mona Seif, a prominent rights activist who co-founded an Egyptian movement against military trials for civilians.