Skip to main content

In the bad old days before humans were assumed to have certain rights, the place where prisoners were thrown was called an oubliette. The word comes from oublier, the French verb meaning "to forget," because that's precisely what was supposed to happen – the prisoners, once lost to public sight, would be forgotten forever.

This is still what happens under regimes around the world, where political dissidents are locked away in the hopes that the world will grow bored and look away. The family of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy is worried that this will happen to him, as he languishes with a serious illness in an Egyptian prison.

In June, Mr. Fahmy, a dual Canadian and Egyptian citizen, was sentenced to seven years in prison along with two of his colleagues from Al Jazeera English, Australian Peter Greste and Egyptian Baher Mohamed (Mr. Mohamed got an extra three years for possessing a spent bullet). Their trial, on charges of being part of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and using their reporting to defame Egypt's good name, was roundly denounced as a farce, a sham and a travesty.

The defendants were told they'd need to pay $170,000 to see the video evidence against them. That evidence turned out to include nonsensical footage of sheep and cows, pop songs and Mr. Greste's vacation photos. In his written ruling, the main judge (who wore sunglasses during much of the trial) attributed the trio's guilt to diabolical forces: "They were brought together by the devil to abuse [their] profession and turn it into acts against the nation."

You could almost laugh, unless of course you were Mr. Fahmy, who's stuck in jail with a ruined arm and hepatitis C for the crime of doing his job. "He's very depressed," is how his brother, Adel, described Mr. Fahmy's condition in an interview this week. "The uncertainty is terrible."

The family has just started a Go Fund Me campaign to finance Mr. Fahmy's appeal, and retained two lawyers to argue on his behalf. (You may have heard of one of them, Amal Alamuddin, who recently married a movie star.) "Our family is financially strained," says Adel Fahmy. Their goal is to raise $350,000, but so far, they've only raised about $5,000.

What would also help is for the government of Canada to publicly demand Mr. Fahmy's release. Ottawa has been noticeably silent on the issue. Where other countries have roared, we have squeaked. As soon as the trial ended, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the journalists' sentence, saying that "a trial that lacked many fundamental norms of due process" is a "deeply disturbing setback to Egypt's transition. Injustices like these simply cannot stand if Egypt is to move forward." Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott have spoken privately to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi about the case. Canada's Prime Minister has not.

"Many world leaders have spoken out, except Stephen Harper," says Adel Fahmy. "We're amazed at that. It's unacceptable. I don't know why my brother is being treated differently from how any other Canadian would be." The answer to that seems clear: As a dual citizen, and one convicted of (trumped-up) terrorism charges, Mr. Fahmy is seen as less deserving than a "real" Canadian would be in similar circumstances.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird has indicated that pressure is being exerted behind the scenes and that "bullhorn diplomacy" won't work in this case. So instead, we get dog-whistle diplomacy at a frequency inaudible to normal human ears. Maybe there's a frenzy of negotiation going on behind the scenes – if so, it hasn't done Mr. Fahmy any good. He still doesn't even have a date for his appeal. As of late August, his file hadn't even been looked at.

He is hardly alone, although he may feel that way. There are 211 journalists imprisoned around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as thousands of activists jailed for their political beliefs. I would imagine this is cold comfort when you're stuck in a cell with no pen, no paper and no prospect of getting out.

As human-rights groups constantly point out, the worst thing that can happen to these people is that no one remembers their names or cares – that the world just moves on. If we forget, we do the captors' work for them.