Stamp of authority
A recent escalation of protests by pro-reform activists was met with increased police violence, Salonaz Sami reports
This week witnessed another wave of arrests and police violence targeting rights activists protesting in support of reformist judges. On 7 May, 11 activists, including four women, from the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya), Youth for Change and Al-Karama Party were arrested. Three of the 11 were released the following day, leaving a total of 55 activists in detention according to Ahmed Ragheb, one of Kifaya's lawyers.
Twelve of the initial 47 -arrested two weeks ago- were set to stand before Bab Al-Khalq Preliminary Court in south Cairo for a renewal of their 15-day sentence issued by the General Prosecutor Maher Abdel-Wahed last week. The hearing was postponed to the next day. "Defence lawyers had called for activists to attend the renewal hearing as witnesses, but security forces didn't allow them to enter the building," lawyer Ahmed Seif Al-Islam told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"We went to attend the hearing but they refused to allow us inside the court," said Aida Seif Al-Dawla, a human rights activist and a Kifaya member, adding that later on around 30 pro-reform activists -- including journalists, lawyers, and university professors -- were besieged by security forces for about five hours in the hot midday sun. "Then they pretended to have ended the siege, but those who tried to get out were rudely insulted, beaten and then arrested," she said.
Seif Al-Islam -- whose 25-year-old son Alaa Seif, an award winning blogger, was arrested that day -- explained that his wife Layla Sweif, a university professor and human rights activist broke down in tears when she saw the "savage way" her son was beaten and thrown into a police car. "And those who weren't arrested were given a message to deliver to their colleagues -- that the government will not be tolerant and will not allow protests in Egypt's streets anymore," Khaled Abdel-Hamid, Youth for Change movement coordinator, told the Weekly. Moreover, two women activists, Nadia Mabrouk from the Labour Party and Salma Said from Youth for Change were sexually harassed and beaten, Abdel-Hamid added.
The initial 47 detainees never made it to the court and a request by the security officials to grant them the renewal without the detainees being present was refused by the court, according to one of their lawyers. All 47, who face charges of assembly, assaulting public functionaries, disseminating allegations that disturb public order and obstructing a street without permission, started a hunger strike last Saturday.
In a statement issued by the detainees, and published on the Kifaya website, they reiterated their support for reformist judges in all their demands and condemned the government for its "continual oppression" of the judiciary, the extension of the state of emergency and the "escalation of its repressive measures" against pro-reform movements. "Despite our willingness to pay this small price for the freedom of our people, we emphasise our upholding of our most basic rights, even as prisoners of war and hereby declare a hunger strike until our demands are met," read the statement which was signed by those arrested from before the Judges' Club and the Courts of Cassation and Appeal.
In the statement, the detained activists made seven demands, including demands to investigate the threats of torture allegedly made by state security personnel against them and to halt the life-threatening state that 23 of them are forced to endure in Tora prison through their internment with inmates who have been convicted of dangerous criminal offences. They also called to be allowed to pray in mosques and be granted access to newspapers and magazines, as stipulated by the prison code of regulations.
One detainee, Ahmed Salah, who was said to have started a hunger strike soon after his detention, was transferred to Qasr Al-Aini Hospital on Saturday due to his ailing condition. Accordingly, a complaint was filed to the general prosecutor's office by the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, which is handling the detainees' cases, to investigate the reasons behind the hunger strike and the ill-treatment that the detainees are claimed to be receiving at Tora prison.
Among the detained are prominent socialist activists Kamal Khalil and Wael Khalil, journalists Ibrahim Al-Sahari and Saher Gad.
On Sunday, right after the arrests, hundreds of pro-reform activists gathered before the Egyptian Press Syndicate -- hailed as "Freedom Square" -- to protest against the arrest of their colleagues, while the area was clogged with armed trucks and thousands of security forces and anti-riot police. A conference to discuss the situation was held later the same day at the syndicate. But on Monday, a peaceful women's protest called for by Seif Al-Dawla among other women activists was not allowed by the security forces.
Galal Aref, head of the Press Syndicate, told the Weekly that the syndicate is following the case closely and doing its best to free all the detainees. Worthy of mention is that more than 53 members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood were also arrested last week while protesting against the renewal of the state of emergency for two years.
Veteran poet Ahmed Fouad Negm called for an artistic night in Talaat Harb Square on Wednesday to show support for the judges and detainees in their hunger strike.
Around 20 human rights centres and movements issued statements condemning the arrests and urging the immediate release of the detainees, including a movement formed by Egyptians living in the United States, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"The government is using the emergency law to silence the peaceful voice of the opposition, which aims for reform." said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division in HRW, in a statement issued Sunday. The HRW said about 100 activists, including Muslim Brotherhood members were arrested last week.
Moreover, solidarity pickets took place in Washington DC, New York, Chicago and San Francisco on Tuesday to condemn the arrests and demand the immediate release of the jailed protesters. "US solidarity activists are joining others around the world to demand the immediate release of Egyptian democracy protesters, and to end the state of repression of judges, activists and the media who have exposed electoral fraud, state violence and corruption," read a statement issued by the US-based activists.
And in an unprecedented move towards internationalisation, officials from United Nations rights committee asked Kifaya to provide documented photos, videos and affiliations of the Egyptian security's alleged violations towards pro-reform activists.
"We have already sent some of the documents, and the committee is expected to convene on 16 June to discuss the matter," George Ishaq, the movement's coordinator told the Weekly. He also stressed that the arrests and aggressiveness will not intimidate or stop the movement from fighting for its goal. "Conditions in Egypt are going from bad to worse. What has been happening over the past couple of weeks confirms it and The government is to be blamed for it," he said.
On 25 May, Kifaya is set to hold a large demonstration and a public mock trail to mark a year's passing since women journalists and lawyers were sexually harassed by members of the security forces in a protest against the referendum pertaining to the constitutional amendment of Article 76.