Egypt: how a new Protest Law is used to silence opponents (2)
Under the supervision of President ElSisi, a former military officer, Egyptian counter-revolutionary government promulgated a new law governing the right to protest. Not only is this legislation severely restricting the freedom of demonstration, but it is also used to arrest, prosecute and jail opponents through controversial trials. Young revolutionaries and human rights defenders are particularly targeted.
In this second part, we are reviewing several famous trials that highlight the use of the law for repressive purposes.
Restrictions of the right of assembly, deterrent sanctions, excessive use of force against protesters: for all these reasons, the new Protest Law was explicitly rejected among those who are committed to fundamental freedoms. They were afraid that Government uses it to establish legal basis for repression. “Instead of using the opportunity to break the pattern where the security forces repeatedly kill protesters with no consequences, the new law will further entrench abuse,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui – Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International – said.
In fact authorities immediately used the new legislation as an effective tool to repress opponents. Two days only after its promulgation, in November 2013, “No to military trials”, a group that was formed in the aftermath of the revolution, organized a demonstration in front of Shura Council, the Egyptian Lower House, against provisions of the new Constitution allowing for military trials of civilians. It was immediately dispersed by security forces and resulted in the arrest of tens of demonstrators. In addition, two prominent activists were arrested, though they were not present at the demonstration’s place: Ahmed Maher, 34 years old, one of the founders of 6th of April Youth Movement, and Ahmed Douma, 29 years old, a member of the Egyptian Popular Current – a nasserist party -, and a famous youth movements’ activist.
While they were being questioned within Abdeen Court, in Cairo, clashes erupted in front of the court and resulted in the arrest of two other renowned revolutionary leaders: Mohamed Adel, 26 years old, Media Representative of 6th of April Youth Movement, and Alaa Abd ElFattah, 34 years old, awarded blogger and member of a family of highly respected human rights defenders. All four men were subsequently tried in two different cases: the “Shura Council case” for Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma, and “Abdeen case” for Alaa Abd El Fattah. Accused of organizing a demonstration without prior notice and attacking central security forces’ officers, the former were sentenced to 3 years in prison and fined 50,000EGP each (5,700EUR). As to the latter, he was indicted for breach of the Protest Law, illegal gathering, theft and attacks of officials on duty, and condemned to 15 years’ imprisonment, a fine of 100,000EGP (11,500EUR) and further 5 years of police surveillance after his release.
Young revolutionaries are particularly targeted
With these sentences, Egyptian authorities attacked the most popular symbols of the Egyptian Revolution. Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel are both leaders of 6th of April Youth Movement, a very large group that gathers nearly one million Facebook fans and contributed to a large extent to the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in January 2011 and consecutive attempts to set up a new democratic regime in the country. Established in Spring 2006 to support El-Mahalla’s workers – a huge and traditionally seditious industrial city -, who planned a politically and socially motivated strike on 6 April 2006, the movement also helped to organize a protest against Khaled Saeed’s brutal murder by Alexandria’s police forces, in June 2010, a tragic event that caused tremendous turmoil among young people and is regarded as a triggering factor of the revolution.
Ahmed Douma, 29 years old, is also to be counted among major opponents to the current regime. A journalist, writer and poet, he joined Kefaya (“Enough!”) ten years ago, one of the early movements whose purpose was to challenge Mubarak’s power. Founding member and/or member of a number of youth movements, including the Coalition of the youth for the Revolution, which tried to federate the numerous youth groups that took part to the revolution of 2011, Douma is famous for its high number of political incarcerations: no less than 17 times, from Mubarak’s era to Morsi’s rule to Sisi’s one!
As for Alaa Abd ElFattah, he and his family symbolize the fight for human rights. His late father, Ahmed Seif, was a human rights attorney who was arrested, tortured and imprisoned in the 1980’s. His sister, Mona, is a founder of the “No Military Trials for civilians” group, while his wife Manal, an activist as well, is Bahi ElDin Hassan’s daughter, an initiator of the contemporary human rights movement in Egypt. A software developer by trade, Abd ElFattah established with his wife Manalaa, the first blog aggregator that did not restrict the inclusion based on the content of the blog. Manalaa was given a Special Award by the French NGO Reporters Without Borders in 2005. Abd ElFattah was first arrested in 2006 while he was demonstrating for an independent judiciary and subsequently, he was repeatedly jailed for his political activities.
In addition to Shura Council and Abdeen cases, the new Protest Law was also used to arrest and imprison renowned members of the Revolutionary Socialists party, including a young human rights lawyer, Mahienour ElMasry, 28 years old. On 2 December 2013 – about ten days after the law’s promulgation -, ElMasry and her colleagues took part in a demonstration in front of the court where murderers of Khaled Saeed (see above) were being tried, in Alexandria. According to a press release published by 20 NGOs, demonstrators were beaten with batons and given punches by police officers, and random arrests took place. Accused of demonstrating without permit and assaulting security forces, Mahienour El-Masry and seven other activists were condemned to a two-year sentence and a fine of 50,000EGP (5,700EUR).
With this trial, Egyptian authorities silenced one of the Alexandrian icons of the revolution. A left-wing lawyer, Mahienour ElMasry is a defender of workers. While she was imprisoned, her friend Rasha Abdullah, an Associate Professor at the American University of Cairo, shared on Internet a text asking for her release and depicting her noble character. “The beauty of Mahienour (…) is that she does not just go to a workers’ sit-in – she actually knows many of the workers by name and personal story”, she says. Moreover, she is a fierce opponent of the military regime. Her friend Rasha recalls that “one of the clips that went viral after the revolution on Egypt’s popular evening talk showed her at the second ever Khaled Said protest in Alexandria, shouting off the top of her lungs, ‘Unite ye people, shoulder to shoulder; Down down with Hosni Mubarak.’ That was months before January 25, 2011, long before “Down down with Hosni Mubarak” became a popular chant.”
Human rights defenders also in the eye of the storm
A more recent case shows that Protest Law is not only used to repress political opponents, but also to threaten human rights organisations. On 26 October 2014, Heliopolis Misdemeanour Court sentenced 22 persons to three years in prison, three additional years on probation and a fine of 10,000EGP (1,194EUR) for breaching the Protest Law and other charges, including damaging property and displaying force. Among the defendants was an awarded lawyer, Yara Sallam, transitional justice officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an active local NGO. All of them were arrested three months before, while they were participating to a march heading to the Presidential Palace in Cairo to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and the repeal of the Protest Law. In a common press release, EIPR and 12 other NGOs report that the march was dispersed by security forces using teargas and protesters were arrested with the help of “individuals in civilian apparel”.
Yara Sallam, who received the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network’s award in 2013, was asked questions about her work at EIPR, the organisation’s management and its activities. While her cousin, arrested with her, was released without charge, Yara Sallam was kept in custody and referred to the public prosecution. All detainees were also interrogated about their political affiliations, their opinions on the Protest Law and their choice of candidate during the presidential elections.
A travesty of justice
Trials of these activists and human rights defenders (6th of April’s leaders, Alaa Abd ElFattah, Mahienour ElMasry, Yara Sallam) all share commonalities. They follow the same pattern characterized by a range of rights infringements and result in what should be called a travesty of justice. First of all, protestors were beaten, and/or insulted, and/or assaulted during their arrest and custody. Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma showed marks of beatings on their hands, legs and stomach during their appeal hearing, Amnesty International said.
Though Alaa Abd ElFattah announced its intention to give himself up to the public prosecution, policemen broke into his house, raided it, seized the laptops and beat him and his wife. Security forces also used a cancelled order of arrest against 6th of April’s leader Mohamed Adel to raid a NGO, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), where Adel served as a volunteer. Five staff members were arrested, brought to an unknown place, blindfolded and beaten for over 9 hours.
Charges brought against these activists are also similar to each other. They include demonstration without a permit or prior notice; attack on security forces (Maher/Adel/Douma, Mahienour ElMasry); illegal gathering, theft and attacks on policemen (Alaa Abd ElFattah). According to lawyers, the authorities did not choose to prosecute the activists for the sole charges of protesting without a permit, but added extra charges to justify a custody. In a joint press release issued after the arrest of Yara Sallam and 22 other protesters, 13 Egyptian NGOs wrote that “the penalty for protesting without a permit is a fine which makes it illegal to hold suspects in pre-trial detention […] the Ministry of Interior resorts to fabricating other charges for protesters such as assaulting establishments and individuals in order to turn the charge to either a felony or a misdemeanour that mandate pre-trial detention.”
Long months behind bars
Actually, the majority of arrested activists remained behind bars for several months. With the exception of Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel, whose trial – the first of its kind after the enforcement of the law – was disposed of in less than one month after their arrest, other protesters were illegally detained for several months before being judged – over 100 days for Alaa Abd ElFattah, over 5 months for Mahienour ElMasry.
Moreover, analysis of their trials brings to light the absence of proofs and fake investigations. Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Douma were questioned within the court when demonstrations they were alleged to have taken part in occurred, according to Amnesty International. Similarly, Yara Sallam and other defendants were accused in a police report of damaging a police vehicle, whereas they were arrested before the time the incident took place.
Judges were also unable to produce credible evidence of the offences. In all cases, proofs that were presented were linked to assertions of security forces’ members. According to local NGOs, in Abd ElFattah’s lawsuit, “the prosecution’s case solely rests on police investigations and witnesses, including some five or six police officers carrying out the arrests”. Likewise, 6th of April’s leaders Maher and Adel, and Ahmed Douma, were also sentenced on the basis of proofs provided by non-neutral parties, i.e. “police officers, the general investigations office and National Security Office“.
In addition, judges neglected exculpatory evidence and witnesses for the defence, according o Amnesty International, including videos screened during the trial, showing Mohamed Adel helping a police officer who was suffering from the effects of tear gas, and testimony of a police officer who claimed during the trial that Mohamed Adel tried to calm the protestors and did not take part in the clashes. The case of Yara Sallam and other defendants also shows a lack of convincing evidence: according to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, two videos were shown during the hearing, but the judge failed to identify the defendants on them.
Finally, all these trials showed a contempt for the rights of the defence. Lawyers were disdained and prevented from doing their job. In Mahienour ElMasry’s case, they were unable to present their defence either before the court or the prosecution. Alaa Abd ElFattah’s lawyers could not defend their clients either: according to a press release issued by 16 local NGOs, “defence did not have the chance to call in witnesses, cross-examine prosecution witnesses, examine video evidence or plead their case”. Moreover, the public prosecution demonstrated clearly their will to laugh at them: while the trial was planned to start at 9am, the lawyers were waiting outside the court when they learned by chance that the trial already ended and the verdict was handed down in absentia without any hearing!.
Similar disrespect to rights of defence was noticed throughout investigations and trial of Yara Sallam and other human rights defenders. In addition to the ban put on contacts between arrested protestors and lawyers, no information was provided about the whereabouts of the former. Location of the trial was also modified at the last minute, forcing lawyers to rush across the city to join the new location. With all these infringements, both of defendants’ rights and lawyers’ dignity, Protest Law proves to be tailor-made with the aim of quelling any dissenting voice.