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updated: 11/5/2017 9:55 AM

Prominent Nubian activist dies in detention in Egypt

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CAIRO -- A prominent Nubian activist arrested in Egypt last month for taking part in a peaceful protest has died in detention, a lawyer and a long-time friend said on Sunday, in a case likely to fuel debate on medical care in Egyptian prisons and the widespread use of lengthy detention without trial or formal charges.

They said Gamal Sorour, a businessman in his early 50s, died Saturday; reports conflicted on whether he died in his place of detention in the southern city of Aswan or shortly after his arrival at a hospital. Police in Aswan said he died soon after he arrived at the hospital.

Sorour, who has had long-term health issues and underwent life-saving surgery several years ago, suffered a diabetic coma on Saturday.

His death was reported by prominent rights lawyer Ragia Omran, who saw him last week during a court hearing in Aswan, and his longtime friend and fellow activist, Haggag Oddoul.

Dozens of mourners attended Sorour's funeral Sunday in the central Cairo district of Abdeen, home to a large Nubian community.

Sorour was among 25 Nubians arrested in Aswan in early September for staging a peaceful Nile-side protest. They were demanding the return of Nubians to their ancestral lands, from which they were evicted in the 1960s to make way for the lake behind the High Dam on the Nile. The detained Nubians now face accusations of taking part in an unauthorized demonstration, inciting protest and disrupting public order.

If convicted, they could face up to five-year terms in prison.

The evacuation of Nubians in the 1960s was the third in southern Egypt since the early 20th century. The other two were also because of dam construction on the Nile.

Sorour participated in the 2011 uprising against longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak and, according to Oddoul, was a philanthropist who generously gave to Nubians in need in both Cairo and southern Egypt.

"After all he has done for his country, he has died while incarcerated with many others by authorities. Many honorable people died before him and many will do after, so long as our country is oppressed," Oddoul, who authored nine books on the plight of the Nubians, wrote on his Facebook account.

Nubians complain they are subjected to discrimination by authorities because of their dark skin tones and indigenous language. They suspect that authorities see them as a security threat and are mindful of any sign of secessionist sentiments among their ranks. A constitution adopted in 2014 gives the government 10 years to resettle the Nubians in dry parts of their ancestral lands, but they complain that no steps have yet been taken to achieve this goal.

Sorour's death is likely to renew debate about prison conditions in Egypt, where authorities have arrested thousands of people, mostly Islamists, in recent years as part of a widespread crackdown on dissent. Many have been held for years without charges or trial.

"Sadly, Gamal Sorour is not the first or last detainee to die while in custody," Omran, a member of the state-sanctioned National Council for Human Rights, wrote on Facebook. "Medical negligence in police stations, prisons and detention centers is a daily occurrence, despite widespread campaigns calling for proper health care for detainees, which is a basic right."

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