Kerala activist detained for 27 hours in Egypt ahead of COP27 vows to launch mass movement

Ajit Rajagopal recalls his experience, which once again highlights the human rights crisis in the northeastern African nation.

BySreerag PS

Published Nov 05, 2022 | 7:05 PMUpdatedNov 06, 2022 | 7:00 PM

Kerala activist detained for 27 hours in Egypt ahead of COP27 vows to launch mass movement

Ajit Rajagopal has survival anxiety — not about his own, but about the planet’s survival.

The Egyptian authorities do not share the same anxiety, the 29-year-old climate activist from Tirur in Kerala’s Malappuram district learnt recently.

Rajagopal was marching on foot to Sharm el-Sheikh, often abbreviated as Sharm, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula from Cairo when he was detained by Egyptian security personnel at a checkpoint on 31 October.

His eight-day march was to create awareness about the climate crisis, ahead of the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP27, at Sharm. The conference began on Sunday, 6 November.

The architect-cum-activist was subjected to a 27-hour-long intense grilling, which drew criticism from climate and human rights activists, besides once again highlighting the rights crisis in Egypt.

“I am not doing any harm to Egypt”, Rajagopal later said. “I was merely marching on foot and won’t even leave any carbon footprints in their land. But they were not even allowing it”.

In an exclusive conversation with South First, Rajagopal recalled his harrowing experience.

27 hours in detention

Rajagopal had spent 50 days in Kenya, a week in Uganda and three days in Rwanda, mobilising people against climate change, before setting foot in Egypt on the northeastern corner of Africa.

“On day one, I wound up my march by evening and spent the night with an Egyptian friend and lawyer, Makarios Lahzy in Obour, a city about 35 km northeast of Cairo. The next day, I packed my bags and set off towards Sharm at 10 am. An hour later, I was stopped at a traffic checkpoint, about five kilometres from Lahzy’s residence,” he said.

The traffic police checked his passport and visa before a three-round inspection of his belongings. Several plainclothesmen, too, were in the team that soon seized his phone.

Rajagopal was holding a white paper, which had the message, “Cairo to Sharm el-Sheikh, March for our planet,” seeking climate justice at COP27.

The message was written in English along with its Arabic translation. “The police enquired whether I could read and write Arabic. I replied in the negative. I told them that my host Lahzy had written it. They asked for his contact number”, Rajagopal continued.

The man was later escorted to a police station, where he found Lahzy. “We were incessantly interrogated separately from 1 pm to 5 pm. I was not having a wristwatch, and I had no sense of time”, he added.

He realised it was 2.15 pm when he was taken out of the police station the next day, more than 27 hours after he was detained at the checkpoint. A young investigator took Rajagopal to the Indian Embassy in a Mercedes-Benz car.

“I had earlier written to the embassy, detailing my plan. I did not face any problem there”, he said. Lahzy, too, was in detention for around 24 hours.

Survival anxiety

Rajagopal is associated with Jai Jagat, a non-governmental organisation, espousing justice and peace based on Gandhian values.

The young man credited his mother for instilling Gandhian values and principles in him.

“I have this survival anxiety”, he continued. “It’s not about my survival but on a macro level, about the survival of the planet. Many trillions of litres of ice are thawing and melting in the planet”, he pointed at the grave danger that would affect all nations.

Rajagopal’s march to COP27 was not about reaching the destination, Sharm. “Attending ‘x’ or ‘y’ summit does not fascinate me. I am more interested in spreading awareness. It is better if we can make children aware of the dangers that climate change pose.”

The harrowing experience in Egypt has not shaken the young man. “I am working towards mobilising people for a non-violent social movement”, he added.

Egyptian rights body condemns arrest

One of the few independent human rights groups in Egypt, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom (ECRF), condemned Rajagopal’s arrest.

“The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) condemns the arrest and detention of Indian environmental activist Ajit Rajagopal for more than 24 hours in violation of the law, during his journey to Suez Governorate on foot and from there to Sharm El-Sheikh to attend the Climate Summit”, the rights body decried in a statement.

It further termed the illegal arrest and detention of Rajagopal “a confiscation of the simplest types of expression of the dangers of climate change on our planet, which are walking campaigns to warn of the dangers of emissions. These campaigns have taken place and are being conducted in several countries.”

ECRF was not alone in condemning Rajagopal’s detention. “For years, advocates have been saying you cannot have climate justice without human rights. Here’s an example from Egypt on why. Meet Indian activist Ajit Rajagopal. He arrived in Cairo & planned to walk to Suez, then Sharm El-Sheikh to raise awareness about the climate crisis.” tweeted Mai El-Sadany.

Washington-based Sadany is a human rights lawyer, who focuses on the Middle East and North Africa.

Human rights crisis in Egypt

Rajagopal said Egypt has a dubious human rights record. He, however, added that not many were lucky.

“I later came to know it was not easy for activists and human rights defenders to come out of jail if detained by the national security agencies”, he added.

Amnesty International, too, holds a similar view.

In a recent report, Disconnected from Reality: Egypt’s National Human Rights Strategy Covers up Human Rights Crisis, Amnesty International revealed how authorities have used the strategy “as a propaganda tool to conceal ever-growing repression of any form of dissent ahead of COP27 in November 2022.”

Egypt launched the National Human Rights Strategy a year ago.

Rajagopal felt that Egypt should have made better use of its resources. “The conference is being held in Egypt. Why is that country lacking any project to protect the River Nile”, he wondered.

“There are several environmental issues in Egypt. Acres of land are becoming saline every year. Egypt should have at least made use of this opportunity (COP27) to protect its environment,” he opined.