Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

What cost dissent?

Opposition parties say draconian prison sentences passed against demonstrators this week aim to silence dissent once and for all, reports Khaled Dawoud

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptian opposition parties were dealt a heavy blow early this week when 152 mostly young protesters, arrested on 25 April, received jail sentences ranging from between two and five years.

Dozens of other demonstrators face the same charges — of illegally taking to the streets on 25 April to protest the maritime border agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia early last month. The agreement hands sovereignty over the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Riyadh.

On Saturday 14 May, Qasr Al-Nil Court sentenced 52 mostly young men, including 19 who had been released on bail pending trial, to two years imprisonment. The court panel had made a surprise decision to move proceedings to the Police Institute in Tora, south Cairo, citing security conditions, instead of the courthouse in Adin, downtown Cairo.

Lawyer Mukhtar Mounir said he was “astonished”, considering the large number of defendants, that the court issued sentences after just two sessions.

Opposition parties barely had time to absorb the shock when, after just 10 hours of deliberation, a court panel in Giza sentenced 101 demonstrators to five years and fined them LE100,000 each. The defendants, who were charged with blocking roads and disrupting law and order, were tried for offences under the Terrorism Law, said Mounir.

At least three similar cases, involving close to 100 defendants, are pending. On Tuesday the Abdin Court adjourned the issuing of sentences against 52 defendants charged with protesting on 25 April to 31 May.

Opponents of the maritime border deal who were not arrested in the streets on 25 April were rounded up in separate cases and face charges of seeking to overthrow the regime, spreading false rumours, harming the national interest and inciting disorder.

They include prominent lawyer and activist Malek Adli, and journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud Saqqa, whose arrest at the headquarters of the Press Syndicate on 1 May has resulted in a stand-off between journalists and the Interior Ministry. The three are part of the same case and will be tried by Shubra Al-Kheima Court in northern Cairo alongside six other defendants.

Last week also saw the arrest of the six members of Atfal Al-Shaware’ (Street Children), a group who post their satirical sketches, filmed in the street, on the Internet.

Only one, Ezz Khaled, who at 20 is the youngest member of the group, was released on bail. Late last week prosecutors extended the detention of the remaining five members for 15 days pending investigations. They have been accused of forming an illegal organization that seeks to overthrow the regime. The charge has sounded alarm bells among rights activists and lawyers who worry at the regularity with which such serious charges are now brought against anyone critical of the government.

The charge of seeking to overthrow the regime can carry a life sentence, or even the death penalty, said Amr Imam, a lawyer who has represented scores of dissidents arrested in recent months, including those who protested against the maritime border agreement.

Opponents of the agreement did manage to hold a peaceful protest on 15 April in front of the Press Syndicate which attracted a few thousand demonstrators.

“We have never requested a permit to hold street protests because we believe the Protest Law violates the Constitution,” said Mustafa Hagar, a member of 6 April Movement.

“But then again, we have never seen courts sentencing university and school students to two and five years in jail for protesting peacefully in the streets. No violence whatsoever was reported on 25 April.”

While all sentences already issued against the defendants will be appealed, say their lawyers, opposition groups have no doubt that the real aim of the harsh sentencing is to silence any dissent.

“President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has made it very clear in public statements that he wants Egyptians to stop talking about the agreement signed with Saudi Arabia,” said Maasoum Marzouk, a former diplomat and prominent member of the Popular Current Party, which is led by former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi.

Adding to the list of dissidents sent to prison this week, prominent activist Sanaa Seif handed herself over to police and will spend six months in jail after refusing to answer questions by prosecutors.

Seif spent more than a year in jail after she was arrested in June 2014 while taking part in a small demonstration against the Protest Law. Her brother, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, is serving a five-year jail term, also for violating the Protest Law.

Seif was summoned for questioning two weeks ago in a case involving plans to hold street protests against the agreement with Saudi Arabia. She told prosecutors she would not answer their questions, saying, “I don’t believe you are independent and you receive your order from executive bodies.” She was then charged with contempt and sentenced to six months. She was taken to jail on Saturday, 14 May.

“The regime wants to distract us from opposing the agreement signed with Saudi Arabia by making us run after young protesters who have been arrested or sentenced to prison terms,” said Hala Foda, a member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the coordinator of the Front in Defence of Freedoms.

“We will not give up,” said Foda. The financial resources of most parties have been drained after paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to bail defendants released by prosecutors pending trials.

“We will appeal the sentences, fight against the Tiran and Sanafir agreement by all legal means, and try to persuade parliament to amend the Protest Law and vote against the deal with Saudi Arabia.”

On Tuesday a group of lawyers, including former presidential candidate Khaled Ali, filed a case with the Administrative Court against the government for signing the deal with Saudi Arabia without first securing the approval of parliament or informing the public.

The petition, said Ali, also argues that the agreement violates Article 151 of the Constitution, which forbids the ceding of Egyptian territory.

Chief Judge Yehia Dakrouri opted to adjourn the case until 7 June.

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