The South African Muslim community has reacted with elation to the news of the release of Sheikh Abdus Salaam Bassiouni, after months of detention in an Egyptian prison. The alim, who has Egyptian and South African citizenship, was released from the notorious Tora prison on Tuesday, ending a 15-month-long detention ordeal at the hands of Egyptian authorities.
Sheikh Bassiouni is an elderly Muslim scholar and a well-known community worker especially in some townships of Johannesburg. The organisation he founded, established and runs pre-schools, feeding programmes and other socio-economic empowerment programmes.
The Jamiatul Ulama South Africa welcomed the news of Bassiouni’s release, saying his detention was cause for distress and concern to those close to him.
Sheikh Bassiouni has for years been in poor health, and his detention in one of Cairo’s worst prisons only worsened his state. His release, coming at a stage when little hope was left, is a cause for relief to many.
“We take this opportunity to thank the South African diplomatic mission in Cairo for extending consular service to Sheikh Bassiouni. Many individuals and organisations worked tirelessly in order to secure Sheikh Bassiouni’s release. Their spirit of solidarity and commitment to see that justice is done is commendable,” he said.
The ulema body reiterated an appeal to the Egyptian government to release all detainees held as “prisoners of conscience” as a way towards national reconciliation.
Shaykh Bassiouni had been held in Tora prison without charge for the past 16 months, since December 2014, when he travelled to Cairo for family reasons. His son Bilal was also arrested at the time but released within a few days.
The 66 year old Shaykh Bassiouni’s detention sparked an outcry amongst South Africa’s Muslim population who demanded that the SA government take urgent measures to secure his release.
Via a series of #FreeBassiouni campaigns, the Media Review Network (MRN) and civil society in conjunction with members of the Bassiouni family kept agitating for his unconditional release.
“The MRN shares the joy of his family and hundreds of learners at the various educational centers set up by him in informal settlements across the south of Johannesburg. We also acknowledge the intervention made by SA’s embassy officials in Cairo which included consular access.”
In welcoming his release and freedom, the advocacy group said it was mindful of hundreds of pro-democracy activists, many belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, who remain languishing in jail. Since the military coup engineered by General Abdel Fattah al Sisi, Egypt has returned to an era of repression and state terrorism.
“Sheikh Bassiouni’s unlawful arrest and detention without trial caused great concern and anxiety amongst his family and friends. It was compounded by the fact that his health deteriorated as a result of access to medical care being denied.”
“The MRN is confident that further details of Sheik Bassiouni’s harrowing experience will be released once he returns home and obtains the necessary medical care.”
The Department of International Relations said it was still trying to confirm details of his release.