Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2006
Issue No. 778
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Unanswered questions

The dismissal of any grounds for criminal action following last May's assaults against women demonstrators provokes angry responses from the Press Syndicate and in the People's Assembly, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

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The 25 May 2005 protests against the presidential elections referendum turned violent

When lawyer Rabaa Mohamed joined last year's 25 May protest against the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution, the crowd of demonstrators in front of the Press Syndicate came under attack. The protest had been infiltrated by a large number of thugs who singled out women demonstrators and indecently assaulted them. Kifaya member Rabaa Mohamed was one of the victims: her clothes were torn and she was subjected to sexual assault. The policemen present at the demonstration ignored her pleas for help. What is more, she says, security officers present were giving orders to the thugs as they attacked demonstrators.

On 3 January, following an investigation lasting more than six months, Prosecutor General Maher Abdel-Wahed dismissed all charges on the grounds that "no basis for a criminal suit exists because the culprits are unknown."

"The decision," said Rabaa, "is yet another blow to all the women harassed and assaulted during the demonstration. The decision is clearly political. Everyone knows the prosecutor-general can never press charges against the ruling party or the Interior Ministry."

The assaults generated outrage in the local press, with many commentators accusing the NDP of hiring the assailants, and international condemnation when footage of the attacks was broadcast on Arab and foreign satellite channels.

"One day," Rabaa hopes, "the truth will come to light and those responsible will be brought to justice."

On 8 January the Press Syndicate Council denounced the prosecutor general's handling of the case and demanded the minister of justice intervene and open a new investigation.

"Abdel-Wahed's decision," said council member Gamal Fahmi, "is a politically-motivated attempt to protect the Interior Ministry and Cairo's leading NDP officials from any culpability for attacks that left eight women journalists and two Kifaya lawyers seriously injured".

Fahmi contrasted the time taken by the prosecutor- general to dismiss the case with the speed -- less than a month -- with which former MP and Al-Ghad Party head Ayman Nour was referred to trial. The double standard the prosecutor-general applies to political cases, he continued, is now clear to all, a fact underlined by the promotion of Nabil El-Izaby, the head of Cairo's Security Department at the time of the attacks and now the governor of Assiut.

On 14 January the Press Syndicate issued a strongly- worded statement condemning the promotion of security officials implicated in ordering the attacks. The following day the Federation of Arab Journalists endorsed the Press Syndicate's criticisms. Meanwhile, Kifaya coordinator George Ishak revealed that the movement was examining the possibility of pursuing the case in the International Court of Justice.

The prosecutor-general's decision provoked outrage in the People's Assembly, where it was raised by Muslim Brotherhood (MB) MPs. Hamdi Hassan, spokesman for the MB parliamentary bloc, submitted a statement -- "A record of malpractice at the office of the prosecutor-general" -- to People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour, alleging that Abdel-Wahed's decision to dismiss cases of sexual assault against women activists and journalists "gives the Interior Ministry a free hand to continue committing aggressive and criminal acts against civil society organisations and opposition groups".

The statement cited several cases in which the prosecutor-general's decisions were motivated by a desire to protect the ruling party. Abdel-Wahed's office, the statement continued, has consistently dragged its feet in the long-running investigation into the deaths of three MB members, Akram El-Zoheiri, Mosaad Qutb and Tarek Ghannam. Their cases, like that of Mohamed El-Sakka, the Alexandria University student killed three years ago during clashes with security following a public protest against the visit of US Vice President Dick Cheney to Egypt prior to the US-Anglo invasion of Iraq, remain unresolved. But then, the statement claimed, investigations in which the security forces are implicated invariably end in deadlock or dismissal.

The MB called on Sorour to facilitate greater parliamentary scrutiny of the performance of the prosecutor-general's office.

"We do not," the statement concluded, "want the prosecutor-general's office to be reduced to an illegal political cover for the NDP-led government's measures against opposition groups and civil society organisations."

Sorour responded that there were no measures he could take to subject the prosecutor-general's office to parliamentary supervision. "It [the office of the prosecutor- general] is an arm of the judiciary and as such the legislative house can exercise no control over it," said Sorour.

Under Judicial Authority Law 46/1972 the prosecutor-general is appointed by the president and performs his duties independently of parliament, though in its recent demands for reform the Judges' Club has argued that the office be elective.

Hassanein El-Shura, a MB MP, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the group's statement was also an expression of their concern over the fate of MB activists arrested during November and December's parliamentary elections. "Whenever we request their release prison authorities say that the cases are still being investigated by the prosecutor-general," said El-Shura. "This, it seems, can go on indefinitely."

Earlier this week the families of several of the detained activists demonstrated in front of Borg Al-Arab Prison, west of Alexandria. The families, says El-Shura, have a right to know why their relations continue to be detained just as "MPs have a right to know how political cases are handled by the prosecutor- general's office."

Sorour told MB MPs that he would contact the prosecutor-general and interior minister requesting answers to their questions. "But until this happens," he told them, "you have to forget everything in your statement."

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