Friday,23 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Friday,23 February, 2018
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Leading activist imprisoned for protesting

The high-profile trial of activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah and 19 co-defendants ended on Monday with verdicts of up to five years in jail. Amira Howeidy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly


On Monday morning, the 112th day of his hunger strike, 33-year-old democracy activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah was sentenced to five years in jail in an ad hoc courtroom located in a prison complex. He was found guilty of organising an unauthorised protest, intimidating and assaulting a police officer and blocking traffic.

Co-defendant Ahmed Abdel-Rahman was also sentenced to five years. Eighteen others in the same case received three-year jail sentences. All were fined LE100,000 ($13,300).

Activists in the packed courtroom shouted anti-military and revolutionary chants before they were drowned by the cries of shocked parents who had hoped to see their children acquitted. Some collapsed in their seats. Others required assistance to walk out of the courtroom.

Defence lawyer Khaled Ali said he would appeal the verdicts in the Court of Cassation, which has the power to order a retrial. “The loopholes and flaws in the prosecution’s case were as glaring as the inconsistencies and contradictions in the testimony of the witnesses called against Abdel-Fattah,” he says.

The judge acquitted the defendants of only one charge: the theft of a police officer’s walkie-talkie.

Monday’s verdict came after 15 months of legal proceedings that had already seen the defendants sentenced to 15 years last summer. That verdict was successfully appealed and a retrial ordered. Along with two of his co-defendants, Abdel-Fattah was held in pre-trial detention, which is where he began the first of his hunger strikes. During Abdel-Fattah’s incarceration his father, a well-known left-wing lawyer, died, and his younger sister Sanaa, 20, was sentenced to three years in prison, along with 20 others, for protesting against the controversial protest law.

After 100 days of a water-only second hunger strike Abdel-Fattah added more fluids to his diet because, says his family, he was suffering from kidney problems. In court he looked frail and gaunt, almost unrecognisable as the chubby activist with long, curly black hair who first came to the attention of a wider public after the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Many see his changed appearance as a metaphor for what Egypt’s youth-driven revolution has become.

When Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was elected president last summer, rumours that the protest law would be amended and many of those detained under its draconian provisions released, reached fever pitch. But the rumours have remained just that, indicating that the authorities are happy with the status quo. Al-Sisi even reiterated an earlier promise to pardon those “unjustly” detained a day before the verdict against Abdel-Fattah was issued.

Some still half-heartedly count on the pardons as the one ray of hope.

“There are mixed signals. You can’t just dismiss the possibility,” says Nevine Mossad, a professor of political science at Cairo University and member of the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights.

The council, which has repeatedly called for changes to the protest law, submitted 13 recommendations to the current cabinet and earlier, to then-interim president Adli Mansour, without eliciting a response.

“I believe the law will have to be changed one day because it is unjust. It is applied selectively and has pointedly failed to stop demonstrations which occur on a weekly basis in areas like Matariya and Al-Haram,” adds Mossad.

“The latest prison sentences for protesting have coincided with acquittals on the other side,” says Mossad, an allusion to court verdicts that acquitted Mubarak, his sons, aides and a host of powerful leading figures from his regime who were jailed in the aftermath of the January 2011 uprising but have now been freed. 

Critics who once lobbied to amend the law now say the sentences are politically motivated and reflect overall government policy.

“This doesn’t look like the impartial implementation even of the protest law,” says socialist activist Wael Khalil. “It’s becoming a way to take revenge on individuals: in this case, Alaa Abdel-Fattah.”

The Shura Council protest was organized by the activist group 'No To Military Trials' and not Abdel-Fatah according to the group’s members but their statement was dismissed by the prosecutor. Defense lawyer Ali described the case as being “tailored for Abdel-Fattah” because the prosecutor failed to provide convincing evidence to support the charges which include use of force.

The prosecutor relied heavily on a small knife which co-defendant Abdel-Rahman carried in his bag at the time of his arrest as criminal evidence. Abdel-Rahman who is a private security guard was passing by as security forces disbanding the demonstration and stepped in to save female protestors being assaulted by a plainclothes officer. He was arrested on the spot. 

According to Ali, Abdel-Rahman’s knife -which he used for cutting food during his long working hours- was replaced towards the end of the retrial by another one and presented to the court “which accepted it anyway" although it didn’t match the prosecutor’s description of the original item.

Abdel-Fattah, a software developer, activist and vocal opponent of the current regime, as he was of its predecessors, is the leading defendant in what has become known as the Shura Council (Upper House) trial. It was named after a small demonstration that took place in front of the Shura Council’s headquarters in November 2013 to protest a controversial law that effectively criminalises peaceful assembly and protest.

At least four other leading activists associated with the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak have received similar jail terms. Compared with Ahmed Doma, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison earlier this month, those who were sentenced on Monday might appear lucky.

Since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster thousands of Islamists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested and hundreds sentenced to varying jail terms. Dozens have received death sentences. But it is the Shura Council trial that, like other high-profile prosecutions, has garnered media interest because it involves the well-known name of Abdel-Fattah.

“Others are not so fortunate,” Laila Soueif, Abdel-Fattah’s mother, said at a press conference earlier this week. Soueif, a professor of mathematics and activist, continued, “The judge allowed lawyers and witnesses to talk, relatives and press representatives to attend and there was lots of publicity and international interest as a consequence. Compare that with the vast majority of trials about which we know nothing.”

Yet Abdel-Fattah’s fame appears to have offered him little protection. Indeed, some suggest that his celebrity status, which he did nothing to court, might be responsible for the fact that he now faces five years behind bars.

“Abdel-Fattah’s role in the early days of the uprising was almost non-existent,” says Gasser Abdel-Razek, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Abdel-Fattah, who moved to South Africa with his wife in 2008, was largerly absent from the activist scene that preceded the January uprising. Before his departure he was known as an unconventional young leftist who joined demonstrations, got arrested, blogged about dissent under Mubarak and referred to himself as “the pink dragon.” It wasn’t until his return to Egypt a week after the uprising that he became fully engaged in activism again.

His profile rose after Mubarak’s ouster when the media seemed obsessed with youth figures. Abdel-Fattah stood out for his vocal expressions of dissent, becoming a target of the security apparatus as early as November 2011. And it hasn’t stopped ever since.

“The cases filed against Abdel-Fattah by three consecutive regimes created an image that the authorities, having contributed to, started to believe,” says Abdel-Razek. “Now Alaa and his family are viewed as a symbol of everything, and accused of everything, at the same time.”

Abdel-Fatah’s incarceration may continue to silence him but it has also placed the verdict among top news items across the globe, next to the haunting image of his face.

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