Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, Sept. 24, 2019.
FILE - Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, Sept. 24, 2019.

CAIRO, EGYPT - Egypt on Friday freed a pro-democracy activist who spent over four years in prison and rose to local prominence as one of the faces of the country’s 2011 uprising, his lawyer said.

Ramy Sayed, 31, had coordinated protests for the April 6 youth movement, a group that helped catalyze the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt that toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.

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In October 2015, Sayed was convicted of taking part in an unauthorized demonstration, as well as related charges such as rioting and disturbing the peace. A criminal court in Cairo sentenced him to 10 years in prison, lawyer May Hamed said.

“Four and a half years in prison with empty charges against him, he didn’t think he would ever be freed,” she said, adding that Sayed was back at his family’s home in Cairo on Friday morning.

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The government has enforced a strict ban on public demonstrations since President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi rose to power in 2013.

Sayed’s pardon, issued last week, came as part of a customary prisoner release to mark Police Day. It’s a fraught holiday, coinciding with the anniversary of the 2011 uprising. El-Sissi, who took power in the wake of protests against the democratically elected but divisive Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, has sought to stifle public commemoration of the uprising.

The Ministry of the Interior pardoned a number of prisoners last week and released 498 inmates on parole. A ministry statement said the prisoners had been pardoned for humanitarian reasons, in line with the government’s “desire to modernize punitive policies, provide care to inmates and free convicts who have been qualified to re-enter society.”

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Rights groups have criticized Egypt’s justice system for violations of due process, and point to mass presidential pardons as further proof of unlawful detentions. Multiple human rights lawyers said they were not aware of any political detainees ordered released in the past week other than Sayed.

El-Sissi has waged an unprecedented crackdown on dissent in recent years, arresting thousands —both secular-leaning activists and Islamist opponents — and rolling back freedoms won after the 2011 uprising.

Mubarak was sentenced to life imprisonment for involvement in the killing of anti-government protesters in the 2011 uprising but was later retried and subsequently acquitted and released in 2017. Last month, one of his sons tweeted that the 91-year-old former president had undergone an unspecified surgery.

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