CAIRO — Hundreds of activists, lawyers and other admirers gathered on Thursday to pay a final farewell to one of Egypt's leading civil rights advocates, a lawyer who defended Islamists, atheists and homosexuals alike and worked to hold Egypt's decades-old police state accountable for torture and abuse.
The passing of 63-year-old Ahmed Seif — who died of complications following heart surgery on Wednesday — comes at a time when dozens of activists behind the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, including two of the deceased lawyer's three children, are in jail. The whole family was a driving force behind the uprising.
The government has launched a sweeping crackdown on protests since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer, detaining tens of thousands of people. Most of those detained are Islamist supporters of Morsi charged with violence-related offenses, but authorities have also arrested a number of prominent secular and left-wing activists.
Chants of "freedom had a shield and a sword, your legacy Seif," rang outside the Cairo mosque where funeral prayers were held. Some mourners climbed an iron fence and waved large pictures of Seif. Inside the mosque young lawyers, some tearful and others reciting verses from the Quran, surrounded the coffin, which was draped in an Egyptian flag.
"We bid farewell to one of the most important rights campaigners," said rights lawyer Ahmed Ragheb.
"Today, the revolution and the revolutionary forces lost a symbol of the struggle for workers' and human rights, the lawyer of the poor and the revolutionary youths," said left-wing activist Haitham Mohamadein.
Seif's advocacy was rooted in his own experience of torture in one of Egypt's notorious prisons in the 1980s, when he was jailed for five years for joining a left-wing group. He would later recall being electrocuted and enduring beatings that resulted in broken limbs. In a 2008 interview with Amnesty International, Seif described torture as "a form of cancer that can eat up a country's youth and stifle its ability to change, criticize, reform and rebel."
He earned his law degree behind bars, and after his release co-founded the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a well-known organization that provides legal aid to dissidents.
Over the course of his career he took on some of Egypt's toughest cases, including representing 52 men arrested in 2001 on allegations of "habitual practice of debauchery" -- a reference to homosexuality, which is banned in Egypt. Three years later, he represented terror suspects rounded up after a series of bombings in the Sinai Peninsula. In 2006, he defended an Egyptian blogger convicted for insulting Islam and the president.
Amid Egypt's latest crackdown on dissent, Seif was one of the few rights lawyers who agreed to defend detained Morsi supporters. Egypt is currently led by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as army chief led Morsi's ouster and presided over the crackdown before being elected president in May.
After the burial, mourners briefly broke into chants of "down with military rule" but stopped amid the heavy police presence. The police were accompanying Seif's imprisoned children, prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah and his sister Sanaa, who were granted permits to attend the funeral.
Surrounded by plainclothes policemen, Abdel-Fattah addressed the crowd, saying: "My father died a martyr and you know who killed him." He was referring to the stress Seif suffered following his children's arrest and the postponement of much-needed heart surgery because of their judicial procedures. Abdel-Fattah and his sister were behind bars when he died.
Abdel-Fattah was sentenced to 15 years for violating a draconian protest law that bans demonstrations without police permits. The activist, who has been in and out of jail over the past three years, was granted a retrial but remains in detention.
After paying a visit to his sick father at the hospital, he began a hunger strike to protest his detention.
Besides his two imprisoned children, Seif is survived by his wife, Laila Soueif, a university professor who is also an active campaigner. Seif's third child Mona is a prominent rights activist who co-founded an Egyptian movement against military trials for civilians.
Associated Press reporter Mariam Rizk contributed to this report.