Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: Selective pardons

A presidential pardon freeing 165 prisoners convicted of protesting illegally is not what it seems. Khaled Dawoud reports

Al-Ittihadiya Palace
Al-Ittihadiya Palace
Al-Ahram Weekly

Expectations were high among campaigners for the release of thousands of people imprisoned for taking part in peaceful protests when news leaked a week ago that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi planned to pardon young men and women held in prison — for nearly two years in some cases – on charges of protesting illegally.

Campaigners’ hopes were deflated on 17 June when the presidency announced that just 165 people “convicted with violating the Protest Law” would be released. The announcement was accompanied by unconfirmed promises from unnamed presidential sources that more would follow.

Disappointment was compounded when it emerged the vast majority of those released were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood arrested while protesting the harsh dispersal by police of pro-Morsi sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda on 14 August, 2013, which left hundreds dead. The list included the names of just two of the detainees on whose behalf secular political parties and revolutionary youth groups have been campaigning for 18 months.

The Interior Ministry became embroiled in controversy when a video filmed by a reporter began to circulate. It showed a police officer dressed in civilian clothes ordering one of the released prisoners to kneel to the ground to show his gratitude. An Interior Ministry spokesman said the incident was being investigated.

Faced with daily demonstrations by Brotherhood supporters, a state of public fatigue following four years of instability and a rise in terrorist attacks Al-Sisi and the security agencies have long insisted Egypt can afford no more protests. Its weapon to prevent them is the protest law, passed in November 2013, under which anyone who protests without first gaining the permission of the Interior Ministry faces up to five years in prison.

Political parties that emerged following 25 January Revolution, including Al-Dostour, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Popular Socialist Alliance and the Popular Trend, and youth organizations such as 6 April Movement and the Revolutionary Socialists which helped kick-start the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, have vehemently opposed the protest law which they argue violates the constitution Egyptians approved in January 2014 and undermines the advance in freedoms gained following Mubarak’s removal.

Though these same parties played an influential role in the lead up to the 30 June, 2013 demonstrations against the Brotherhood this did not save their members from arrest when they insisted on practicing what they consider e their constitutional right to protest peacefully.

On 26 November 2013, a day after the protest law was approved, dozens of young men and women were arrested for peacefully demonstrating in front of the Shura Council where members of the committee drafting the new constitution were meeting. They were demanding the constitution ban the trial of civilians before military courts.

Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a well-known activist and harsh critic of the army, and 23 others were arrested and referred to court. On 22 Abdel-Fattah and another defendant were finally sentenced to five years in jail. His co-defendants received three-year sentences.

Leading 25 January Revolution youth activist Ahmed Doma and 6 April Movement leader Ahmed Maher, arrested around the same time for protesting in front of Abdin Court, were sentenced to three years. When Abdel-Fattah’s younger sister, Sanaa, joined a small peaceful protest a year ago near the Al-Ittihadiya Palace in Heliopolis to demand the release of those held, she was arrested with 23 others, including six women, and sentenced to two years.

Eight leftist activists, including Mahinour Al-Masri, were arrested in Alexandria in December, 2013 and sentenced to three years imprisonment for holding a small demonstration in front of a court house to protest the conduct of the trial of two policemen charged with murdering Khaled Said a few months before the 25 January Revolution. Said’s brutal killing at the hands of the police was one of triggers of the 25 January uprising. After spending six months in jail Al-Masri was acquitted on appeal, only to be rearrested with seven others on 31 May and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment for taking part in a protest when Morsi was in office.

The detained activists were leading critics of the Brotherhood during Morsi’s year in office and took part in peaceful demonstrations, two facts that led politicians and commentators, some known to be supporters of Al-Sisi, to demand their release.

Such demands have been in vain. The Interior Ministry has remained firm, refusing to recommend to the president the release of any activists convicted with violating the protest law on the grounds this would encourage others to take to the streets and voice their demands.

Abdullah Al-Sinnawi, a leading columnist who has met with Al-Sisi several times, has pressed for the release of the seven young women, including Sanaa Seif and Yara Salam, held following the Al-Ittihadiya  protest.

The failure to include 25 January youth activists in the presidential pardon “confirms a growing feeling that 30 June was a counter revolution by supporters of the former Mubarak regime,” says Al-Sinnawi. He adds that Al-Sisi had promised to look into the release of the seven young women in the Al-Ittihadiya case “whose only charge is that they carried banners in front of the presidential palace denouncing the protest law”. That the seven remain in prison, he argues, “confirms that the security bodies have more antagonism to these young people than to the Muslim Brotherhood”.

The Brotherhood claims between 30,000 and 40,000 of its members are in prison. Interior Ministry spokesmen insist no more than 8000 are behind bars.

On websites and television stations sympathetic with the Brotherhood commentators have repeatedly noted that the pardon includes 165 activists while a similar number, if not more, are arrested on a daily basis.

The Horeya Lel-Geda’an (Freedom for the Brave) pressure group, at the forefront of the campaign to release protestors, said it “welcomed the presidential pardon” and criticised the “double standards” of secular parties who focus only on the plight of well-known activists while disregarding the suffering of thousands of others unjustly detained.

“We refuse to judge such pardons on the basis of the political affiliation of detainees and we question the legal basis of the majority of detentions in recent years,” says the group. “All citizens are entitled to a fair trial regardless of their political affiliation or the charges they face.”

The group also questioned the criteria used to select the165 prisoners who were included in the presidential pardon. While official statements implied they had all been convicted under the protest law, Al-Horeya Lel-Geda’an notes that the majority, 104, were arrested before the law had been issued. And while officials have repeatedly stated the president can only pardon those who had received “final” sentences, i.e after all avenues of appeal had failed, the rule applies to just three of the165 pardoned.

“What we want is freedom, and justice, for all,” said the group.

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