Toronto

LGBTQ activist Sarah Hegazi, exiled in Canada after torture in Egypt, dead at 30

A prominent LGBTQ activist who sought asylum in Canada after being arrested and tortured in her native Egypt has died, leaving behind unfulfilled dreams of liberating other people targeted for their sexual orientation and political beliefs.

Hegazi struggled with depression, trauma after enduring 3 months of torture by Egyptian authorities

A friend captured a photo of Sarah Hegazi hoisting a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo in 2017. She was arrested and tortured by the Egyptian authorities not long after. (Amr Magdi/Twitter)

A prominent LGBTQ activist who sought asylum in Canada after being arrested and tortured in her native Egypt has died, leaving behind unfulfilled dreams of liberating other people targeted for their sexual orientation and political beliefs.

Sarah Hegazi, 30, is being remembered as an inspiring symbol of resistance and bravery by mourners around the world.

She was found dead in her Toronto apartment on Saturday, June 13, of an apparent suicide.

Hegazi was imprisoned in the fall of 2017 after waving a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo by the Lebanese band Mashrou'Leila, whose lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay.

The sight of the flag associated with LGBTQ liberation being so prominently displayed at the concert outraged many in the Egyptian establishment. It ignited a three-week anti-gay crackdown by the authorities, in which Hegazi was the only woman arrested.

"It was a shock for the conservative community and it was a shock to the Egyptian government," said her friend Ahmed Alaa, who was also jailed after raising a rainbow flag at the show.

In interviews, Hegazi said she was tortured by the Egyptian government for three months before her release on bail. Fearing her eventual prosecution as an openly gay woman in a country that routinely targets and charges its gay citizens with crimes of debauchery and blasphemy, Hegazi fled to Canada shortly after.

In an interview with CBC News in 2018, Hegazi spoke of the unrelenting trauma caused by her imprisonment, which she said included torture by electric shock.

"I want to get over it and I want to forget," she said at the time. "But no, I'm still stuck in prison."

Hegazi described a life in Canada marked not by relief or a sense of sanctuary, but of nightmares, depression and panic attacks.

She was also debilitated by severe loneliness after being separated from her beloved mother and younger siblings, who remained in Egypt. Hegazi's mother died of cancer a month after she landed in Canada.

"Home is not land and borders. It's about people you love," Hegazi said. "Here in Canada, I haven't people, I haven't family, I haven't friends. So I'm not happy here."

Sarah Hegazi, a prominent Egyptian LGBTQ activist, has died in Toronto after fleeing imprisonment and torture in her homeland. 1:30

While grateful for the protection from prosecution provided in Canada, Hegazi said she dreamed of returning to her homeland to continue her fight against discrimination, Western imperialism and capitalism.

But doing so would require shaking off the trauma of her imprisonment, which she described as a near-insurmountable task.

"If I get the help and I can feel like I'm finally free from it, I'll be able to not only help my brother and sister, but hundreds of people who I know need it," Hegazi said.

A close friend promises to continue her life's work

Hegazi also hoped to draw attention away from her own experience and toward the many other people languishing in prisons at the hands of menacing regimes.

"I don't want to focus only on my case, I want to focus on the hundreds of thousands of people that are in jail because they either have a different political standing or sexual orientation," Hegazi said.

While Alaa said he is still struggling to accept her death, he pledged to remember her as a champion for human rights.

"For everyone who needs help and support, Sarah was the most kind, the most supportive person you might ever see," said Alaa, who also fled Egypt and now lives in Toronto.

Ahmed Alaa joined Hegazi in Canada after being jailed and tortured. 'All she wanted was to go back to Egypt, to live in peace, to love her siblings,' he said. (Grant Linton/CBC)

The two met in Egypt while working with a domestic violence organization. They later bonded over their shared interest in advancing human rights for Egyptians in the LGBTQ community.

"She was fighting a lot, but she just lost her energy," Alaa said, adding that continuing her work is "the only thing we can do."

Lead singer, LGBTQ community honours Hegazi online

News of her death has sparked an outpouring of support on social media, with many people using the hashtag #RaiseTheFlagForSarah in her honour.

But in a Facebook post, Hamed Sinno confronted an altogether different wave of online comments that welcomed news of her death, which was framed as the result of a life lived in contravention of God.

"I don't know what to make of the amount of hate I've seen over the last two days," he wrote. "None of this is God's will. None of this is religion."

Sinno concluded the post by quoting a line of Hegazi's poetry, originally written in Arabic:

"The sky is sweeter than the earth, and I need the sky not the earth."


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/ (chat)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

With files from Joyita Sengupta, Anand Ram, Adrienne Arsenault, Yasmine Hassan and Chris Glover

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