Wednesday,20 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Wednesday,20 June, 2018
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Charging the witness

Members of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party have launched a campaign to press for abolishing the controversial protest law, reports Ahmed Morsy

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Qasr Al-Nil Misdemeanours Court adjourned on Saturday the trial of 16 members of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party together with a human rights activist Azza Suleiman, who all face charges of violating the protest law, to 9 May. The defendants were referred to court for taking part in a protest on 24 January 2015 without obtaining permission from the Interior Ministry, as stipulated by the controversial protest law.

During a peaceful march they organised to mark the fourth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, one of the participants, was shot dead by a police officer, who was referred to a criminal court on 17 March. The officer, accused of manslaughter and intended injury, is to be tried on 10 May.

The killing of Al-Sabbagh, a 32-year-old political activist, sparked a domestic and international outcry. Al-Sabbagh and her companions had gathered in Talaat Harb Square and were trying to march towards Tahrir Square where they intended to lay down flowers in memory of those killed during the 18-day uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak. However, the security forces forcibly dispersed the march.

The list of defendants includes Popular Socialist Alliance Party Deputy Head Zohdi Al-Shami and leading leftist figure Elhami Al-Merghani, among other members of the alliance. The fact that the Alliance Party’s members were referred to trial on protest charges before the officer was charged with manslaughter angered the party, and members have said that trying one police officer was not enough.

“Holding an officer accountable is not enough as he is not the only police officer responsible. The higher rank officials ranging from the officer’s supervisor, who ordered him to fire, to the former interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim should be held accountable,” Medhat Al-Zahed, acting president of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, said.

Al-Sabbagh died on 24 January. The Forensic Medicine Authority concluded that her death was caused by a birdshot in the back, causing lacerations in the lungs and heart and a haemorrhage.

“Following the dispersal of the march, Ibrahim stated more than once that the forces dealing with protests were not equipped with birdshot guns. Isn’t that lying and covering up?” said Al-Zahed.

Al-Zahed believes that the failure to pursue cases involving the unlawful killing of peaceful protesters has compounded the sense of impunity that allows security forces to trample on basic rights.

For his part Ali Suleiman, the head of the 17 defendants’ legal team, said, “Twelve out of the 17 accused turned from being witnesses into defendants. The prosecution called me and other officials of the party following the incident, asking for eyewitnesses who could help them to identify Al-Sabbagh’s killer. Six eyewitnesses including me and activist Azza Suleiman went to the prosecution, and only after they had given their testimony did we find out that they were charged.

“The same thing happened again when they asked for more eyewitnesses promising to keep them witnesses in the investigation. Nevertheless, they were also found guilty in the case. Following referring the police officer to the criminal court, they told me that the birdshot guns usually injure more than one person and asked whether or not there are injuries other than Al-Sabbagh. I brought two injured party members to the investigative body and they were too were charged in the case.”

Azza Suleiman allegedly did not take part in the protest but happened to be situated in a cafe adjacent to the spot where it took place. She testified that Al-Sabbagh was killed by police forces and was subsequently referred to trial.

Following her being enrolled as a defendant, Suleiman posted the following on her Facebook page, “Today, after being turned from a witness to a defendant, I can say that I don’t regret stepping forward to testify. No matter what the police, prosecution or the judiciary do to scare us - sometimes successfully - I still have hope.”

Prior to dispersing the march, Secretary General of the Popular Alliance Party Talaat Fahmi, one of the defendants, was negotiating with the police forces located in Talaat Hard Square, asking them whether or not they would allow the march to reach Tahrir Square.

“They seemingly refused Fahmi’s request, but he had barely turned his back to leave the security forces when the shooting began, targeting other members of the march who were awaiting Fahmi steps away,” Al-Zahed said. “If they had given him time to inform the march’s members of the refusal, we would have cancelled the march and returned to the party’s downtown headquarters.”

Al-Zahed added that security forces did not follow the legal procedures required to disperse a protest. These vary from initial verbal warnings, gradually moving onto the use of tear gas, or birdshots in the case of protesters being violent or presenting a direct threat to the police.

Asked why they hadn’t got the prior agreement of the police so that the march would be legal, Al-Zahed said, “The protest law is not constitutional and we don’t recognise it. The constitution states that a protest requires prior notification while the current protest law requires a prior permission of the Interior Minister. Besides, this was not a protest; it was a very limited peaceful march. The party staged a similar march a week before the incident from the headquarters of the party towards the Press Syndicate to protest terrorism and the security forces did not interfere,” Al-Zahed said.

In a press conference held on Saturday following the court session, the Popular Socialist Alliance Party promised retribution for Al-Sabbagh, vowing to prosecute those behind her murder. The alliance is launching a campaign to repeal the protest law, according to Al-Zahed, now its acting head, who called on all other parties to join.

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