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Imprisoned for Love: Human Rights in Egypt

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On 11 February 2011, the Egyptian nation celebrated freedom, as Hosni Mubarak's 30 year rule came to an end. Thousands gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and the exultant images were transmitted to TV screens the world over. Egypt had its carte blanche.

But this wasn't absolute. On 16 October 2011, American Jessica Albrent married Ahmed Azzam, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the Egyptian military. The marriage was legal and binding under Egyptian law. Jessica and Ahmed's families and friends joined them to celebrate their union. The couple were married for less than two months, when Ahmed was arrested. His crime? He married the woman he loved. And she wasn't Egyptian.

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The Egyptian military's disregard of human rights is long-standing and deep-seated - for many officers, human rights simply do not exist. Jessica explains: "Officers in the Egyptian military are not permitted to vote, become a member of any political party, attend any rallies or political meetings, or protest. They may not complain of any aspect military service and military operations to the press, any governing bodies separate from the military, embassies, human rights groups, NGOs, or to any judiciary not supervised by the military.

"They may not criticise the military to any of the above listed groups, nor may they criticise the military to their friends, family, or even in the privacy of their own homes. They may not form a union or other group to advocate for their rights, even within the structure of the military. All infractions of Egyptian civil law committed by officers are tried in military courts, not in civil courts. Egyptian officers may not receive any training for any career not sanctioned and approved by the military- meaning they may not attend a college or university program unless they have permission from the military. Officers are not permitted to ever travel outside of Egypt, unless express permission is granted, and it rarely is. Officers are not supposed to have an account with any social networking site.

"Officers are not permitted to obtain a non-military passport. They may not marry foreigners. A contract with the military is ten years. After an officer's ten years have been completed, he should, under his contract, have the option of "retiring" or leaving service with the military. However, certain officers, especially those in scarce positions, such as doctors, engineers, pilots, etc. are often not permitted to retire until well into their fifties."

Entering into the military is a common option for young Egyptian men - very few are wealthy enough to pay for university study (student loans aren't available), there are few scholarships, and a university education doesn't guarantee an income - unemployment currently stands at over 9%. The military provides education and a solid income.

Ahmed and Jessica knew that their marriage could result in a backlash from the military, and they looked into all possible ways to avoid this outcome. At first they hoped that Ahmed would be permitted to retire, but when he approached his superiors about it, he was told not to even try to request retirement. As a helicopter pilot he was too valuable to let go, so despite Ahmed having more than completed his contracted 10 years of service, he was forced to remain in the military. Yet hypocrisy has manifested itself - a valuable helicopter pilot is in jail.

After long discussions and having weighed up all of the options, which really came down to forgetting each other or taking the risk, the two decided to marry. Neither of them expected such an astringent reaction from the Egyptian military. In fact, according to military law, Ahmed should not be in jail at all, nor should he ever have been brought to trial. Egyptian military law explicitly states that officers who marry foreigners should not be sued and should be discharged. Because the Egyptian military and the military judiciary acts with impunity, and without extrinsic checks, Ahmed was illegally brought to trial and sentenced to one year. He has no recourse and no legal methods of fighting this violation of law.

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Jessica now lives in Tanzania, in turmoil: "I am not sure what Ahmed does, but I cry a lot. I miss him, and can't believe this happened to him. We were married for less than two months when he went to jail, so I am not used to the idea of being married. I get down, and then I keep fighting for him, I can't do anything else. I keep writing letters that no one answers, keep writing requests that no one reads, I keep writing to my senators and representatives, who never respond - and won't be getting my vote - and keep talking to officials who know nothing. Every once in a while, I think I have done everything I can, but then I can't stop fighting for Ahmed. If I don't speak up for him, no one will. So I write again. I badger my friends for help, because I cannot stop.

"I was able to visit Ahmed once. I do not currently live in Egypt, and, as a foreigner, I am not normally allowed to set foot on any military property at all, including the jail. As a result, Ahmed must apply for special permission for me to visit him, and visits can only occur on Thursdays for two to three hours. While I was happy to see him, he asked that I not come again - he did not want me to visit "this hell" - his words - again. We do not have direct communication, as he does not have access to a phone, so his family visits him regularly and they bring letters back and forth. Ahmed's lawyers have filed two appeals since his sentence. The appeals were put in a file and are forgotten. There are no tracking numbers, and there is no obligation for the judicial system to review the appeals at all. No right to due process as well.

"I think people ignore this story because it is not happening right in front of them. There are no pictures of anyone being beaten or gassed, no one crying into a camera for justice, and no flags waving in this case. This is a man without a voice, a man who has no one to turn to."

Jessica and Ahmed's story illustrates a pattern of disregard for human rights in Egypt and by the Egyptian military. Herein lies the greatest injustice and the biggest story of all - thousands protest in Tahrir Square, fighting justly for their rights, feeling hatred for the soldiers and police standing right beside the protesters, but those soldiers have no one to fight for them. The men in uniform from whom the average citizen expects respect and protection have almost no human rights; and no place where they can scream and chant for their freedom.

You can show your support of Jessica and Ahmed's marriage by signing this petition.

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