Renowned human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam died on Wednesday after slipping into a coma following open-heart surgery earlier this month, his family announced in a statement.
Seif was involved in political activism since his student days, but studied law and became a human rights defender following his detention in 1983, during which time he was reportedly tortured.
Seif leaves behind his wife — university professor and activist Laila Soueif — a son and two daughters who have all followed his footsteps into political activism, and a grandson.
His reputation as a human rights defender was uncontested across the political spectrum. He defended Islamist detainees arrested on terrorism-related charges in 2004 following the Taba bombings in Sinai, as well as 52 men arrested on suspicion of homosexual behavior in 2001, known as the “Queen Boat case.”
His younger colleagues often credit him for mentoring them and providing an example of a true human rights defender who transcended political differences and continued to struggle in the darkest times.
Seif began to pay the price for his activism when he was briefly detained in 1972, and he and his family have continued to do so. His son Alaa and daughter Sanaa could not be beside him on his deathbed as they are both currently in prison.
Alaa was sentenced to 15 years in absentia in June for protest-related charges and was taken into custody only two months after his initial release. He started a hunger strike last week after discovering his father’s critical condition during an authorized visit. His sister Sanaa was arrested in June while protesting for the freedom of her brother and others detained under the Protest Law.
Seif was arrested four times throughout his life, the last of which was in 2011. He was also part of his son’s legal team during the three rounds of detention that he endured in the last three years.
In 1983, the authorities offered Seif an opportunity to flee the country after he was sentenced to five years for his involvement in the socialist movement. Despite the fact that his wife Soueif was pregnant with their second-born Mona at the time, Seif turned himself in, opting to serve his sentence rather than be forced to leave Egypt for at least 15 years.
Seif reported being severely tortured in prison. However, he was still able to make use of this time to finish his law degree and started practicing after his release in 1989.
In 1999, Seif co-founded the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a school for human rights lawyers and one of the few go-to places in Egypt for those experiencing injustice.
In an interview with Amnesty International in 2008, Seif said, “All that violates human dignity is an abuse to human rights.”
He continued to fight such abuses against doctors’ orders until his recent operation, showing up in court with his son and daughter as well as other defendants whose cases he took on.
During a press conference, held as Alaa was incarcerated in January, Seif, who has struggled all his life for justice, said, “I wanted you to inherit a democratic society that guards your rights, my son, but instead I passed on the prison cell that held me, and now holds you.”