Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

PSAP members found not guilty

In a relatively rare ruling, leaders of the Socialist Alliance Party were acquitted over charges of holding an illegal protest in which activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh was killed, reports Khaled Dawoud

PSAP’s demostration
PSAP’s demostration
Al-Ahram Weekly

The dozens of lawyers who cramped into a small room in Abdin Courthouse on Saturday couldn’t believe it when the judge suddenly ruled to acquit all 17 defendants, mostly top leaders of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party (PSAP), charged with holding an illegal protest on 24 January in which one party member, Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, was killed, allegedly by police.

According to the widely criticised protest law, the defendants could have been jailed for up to five years, and paid a fine of up to LE100,000 if convicted, because similar cases have gone to court since the law was passed in November 2013.

Only two sessions after the case opened on 4 April, lawyers had not even presented their arguments to the judge. As soon as judge Amir Assem opened the session, he ruled to acquit all 17 defendants, saying that the evidence presented by prosecutors was “vague and confusing”. The lawyers chanted, “Long live justice”, and defendants and their relatives and friends hugged each other in tears of joy.

In his ruling, the judge said, “What the court has been persuaded with is that while the defendants were trying to mark the anniversary of the 25 January 2011 Revolution, they gathered with others in a march that tried to head towards Tahrir Square to place flowers on the memorial built there for martyrs of the revolution.

“To reach the square, they marched on the sidewalk on Talaat Harb Street, and a number of them went to seek permission (from police) to place the wreaths. However, their request was rejected, and police forces secured the street and fired tear gas to disperse them.”

The killing of Al-Sabbagh, a 30-year-old mother of a five-year-old child, and the pictures of her that went viral — being carried away by a colleague covered in blood moments before she died — loomed large over the trial. However, her suspected killer, an anti-riot police officer, is being tried separately at a criminal court.

The Interior Ministry had initially insisted that the anti-riot unit at Talaat Harb Square only used tear gas to disperse the small number of PSAP members, and vehemently denied police were armed with bird shot which was sprayed at Al-Sabbagh, according to official forensic reports. An Interior Ministry statement issued immediately after the incident claimed that “unknown elements infiltrated the march” and shot Al-Sabbagh dead. Police even went as far as to allege that PSAP Deputy President Zohdi Shami, 68, could be behind Al-Sabbagh’s death because he was seen in a photo walking behind her with his hand in his jacket pocket, allegedly carrying a gun. Police raided Shami’s home and took the jacket, which forensic experts said showed no traces of bird shot or any shots fired from his pocket. Shami was one of the 17 found not guilty on Saturday.

After imposing a blackout on publishing news related to the incident, the prosecutor general finally filed charges in mid-March against an anti-riot police officer, whose name was withheld for security purposes, and who was seen masked in one of the videos while pointing his a rifle at Al-Sabbagh. The case against the officer opened on 10 May, and the judge ordered his preventive detention during the trial. The third session was adjourned to 7 June.

Ali Suleiman, one of many PSAP lawyers, said he hoped Saturday’s ruling, acquitting all defendants and confirming the peaceful nature of the protest, would allow him to change the charge against the suspected Al-Sabbagh killer from beating that led to death to premeditated murder. He added that the case in which the 17 PSAP leaders were involved “is not at all different from many other cases in which dozens were jailed for holding peaceful demonstrations since the protest law was passed. However, in this case, the evidence was so strong that it could not be ignored by the court.”

Suleiman confirmed that the prosecutor general’s office maintains the right to appeal the verdict and seek a retrial. This was actually what happened on 26 May. Cairo Appeals Court announced that the Prosecutor-general appealed the verdict and that the first retrial session would be held on 13 June.

In his ruling on Saturday, the judge noted that the 17 did not disrupt public order, and were only seeking to peacefully express their views and demands. He added, “It was proven to the court by eyewitnesses that the defendants were only seeking to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution. What they did could not be interpreted as a political protest that could be criminalised. Their gathering was not different from similar gatherings that take place during victory parades, or those that coincide with weddings.” The court added that the case “did not include any evidence to prove that defendants attacked police, citizens or public property,” contrary to initial claims by the Interior Ministry statement.

In a related development, eight political parties, including the PSAP, Dostour, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Karama, Popular Trend, Al-Adl, Egypt Freedom and the Bread and Freedom Party, announced on Saturday that they had launched a petition addressed to the Supreme Constitutional Court, appealing to its judges to set an immediate date to look into a case filed by two lawyers questioning the constitutionality of the protest law.

Khaled Ali, a former leftist presidential candidate, and Tarek Al-Awadi, both won a case in mid-June 2014 at the Administrative Court allowing them to challenge the unpopular law.

Although the Supreme Constitutional Court announced on 31 July that it had asked a judicial body of experts within the court to prepare an initial report before looking into the case, during the past 10 months no date had been set.

Ali and Awadi argue that the protest law violated the constitution which guarantees the right to peaceful assembly after notifying security. Instead, the law states that those who wish to hold a peaceful protest should seek permission from the police a week in advance.

They also argued that harsh sentences of up to five years were disproportionate to the violation committed, considering the peaceful nature of the protests.

Medhat Al-Zahed, PSAP deputy president, said he was satisfied with the ruling, and hoped that it would renew the debate over the need to amend the protest law. “It makes no sense at all that ousted president (Hosni) Mubarak and his two sons get a three-year jail term for stealing LE125 million to add luxuries to the presidential palaces, while our young men and women go to prison for up to five years for simply holding a peaceful protest. These are the same young people who revolted against Mubarak, and later against (former president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed) Morsi.”

Al-Zahed renewed his appeal to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to fulfill several earlier promises he made, the latest being in a televised address on 22 February in which he said he would look into the release of dozens of young men and women who have been in prison for over a year following several trials in which they were convicted with violating the protest law.

“Perhaps the first anniversary of Al-Sisi becoming president could be a good occasion to issue a pardon,” he added.

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