Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1202, (19 -25 June 2014)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1202, (19 -25 June 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Trial – and error

The 15-year prison sentences handed down to Alaa Abdel-Fattah and 24 others lend new impetus to the campaign to amend the protest law, reports Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

Political parties and youth movements said on Tuesday they would step up their campaign to amend the controversial protest law after a Cairo court issued a 15-year sentence in absentia against well-known activist and blogger, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, and 24 others, for holding an unlicensed demonstration to protest the military trial of civilians in November. Abdel-Fattah and a second defendant were also convicted of attacking a police officer and stealing his walkie-talkie.

Abdel-Fattah and other defendants arrived at the courthouse set up in a police academy in Tora on 11 June expecting a regular trial session in which the judges would question witnesses and examine evidence. However, Judge Mohamed Al-Fiqi opened the trial unexpectedly early at 9am, only to issue a 15-year prison sentence for all defendants to an empty courtroom in the absence of the defendants and their lawyers. As the defendants were still trying to pass through security checks around the courthouse a small group of policemen approached Abdel-Fattah and arrested him, together with Ahmed Nubi and Wael Metwalli, who happened to be sitting together at a coffee shop next to the court entrance.

“This suggests the police deliberately targeted Abdel-Fattah because of his harsh criticism of the Interior Ministry and its practices,” says Taher Abul-Nasr, one of Abdel-Fattah’s lawyers. “There were several other defendants outside, and even some inside, the court. They could all have been arrested to carry out the sentence, but the police only came to arrest Abdel-Fattah.”

Defendants convicted and sentenced in absentia can demand an automatic retrial.

All 25 defendants have appealed the sentence, says Abul-Nasr. Abdel-Fattah’s release from prison, however, can only be determined before a new court sets a date for retrial.

“We know this is not a final sentence, and it will be changed in the Appeals Court, but to deliver such a uniformly harsh sentence against all the defendants despite the fact they face a range of different charges raises serious questions on the independence of the judiciary and guarantees for a fair and free trial.”

Al-Dostour, the centre-left party led by Hala Shukrallah, together with the Arab nationalist Al-Karama Party led by Mohamed Sami, the Popular Socialist Alliance led by Deputy President of the National Human Rights Council Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, the Masr Al-Horeyya Party led by Amr Hamzawi, Al-Adl Party, Al-Aish Wa Al-Hureya or Bread and Freedom  Party, and Al-Tayar Al-Shaabi led by former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, issued a joint statement on 17 June sharply criticising the protest law. The statement said activists who supported the 25 January, 2011 Revolution against Hosni Mubarak, and the popular revolt on 30 June against Mohamed Morsi, were being treated no differently than members of groups involved in acts of violence.

“In the context of repeated court sentences, issued almost daily, sending young members of political parties and youth movements that ignited the 25 January Revolution to prison terms ranging from between two to 15 years, the undersigned parties cannot but renew their firm condemnation of the infamous and unconstitutional protest law, especially when it targets peaceful demonstrators seeking to express their opinions freely, which is a basic right in a developing democracy,” the parties said in their statement.

“The peaceful demonstrators who are currently serving harsh prison terms, and others who have been in prisons for months pending trial, cannot be confused with groups that use armed violence… at the hands of the deposed [Brotherhood] regime they were the victims of repression and intimidation similar to that they are now facing,” the joint statement added.

All the parties that signed the statement supported Sabahi against Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in the presidential election. While they all took part in the popular revolt against the Brotherhood on 30 June they later criticised the transitional government for failing to keep its pledges to build a democratic state that could meet the goals of the 25 January Revolution. The same political parties are currently discussing the possibility of entering into an alliance to contest upcoming parliament elections, and all are critical of the election law issued by former interim president Adli Mansour one day before he left office.

“The desire of our people to enjoy security cannot be achieved at the expense members of the country’s youth who sacrificed their lives and future to assure an honorable life for all. The undersigned parties therefore repeat their demand this law be amended and changes introduced that ensure it is consistent with the rights to demonstrate and protest enshrined in the constitution,” the parties said. “We also call upon security bodies to stop using violence against peaceful demonstrators, and stop treating revolutionary youth in the same way they deal with members of violent groups.”

Youth groups, including the Revolutionary Socialists and 6 April Movement, say they will hold a demonstration in front of the Al-Itthadiya Presidential Palace on 21 June, marking what they describe as the International Day for Egyptian Detainees.

 Khaled Al-Sayed, a member of the Revolutionary Socialists group who was detained for three months for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration on 25 January, said they are also preparing an amended protest law as an alternative to the restrictive legislation approved by the government late last year.

Facing daily demonstrations by supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood, former prime minister Hazem Biblawi issued a protest law in November that gave the Interior Ministry the right to approve or reject requests to hold protests. It banned sit-ins, and imposed penalties of up to five years to prison and hefty fines against violators.

Parties that claim allegiance to the 25 January Revolution have held scores of demonstrations against the law and to appeal for the release of dozens of their members, all to no avail. The shocking sentences against Abdel-Fattah and his colleagues — criticised by local and international human rights groups, as well as by the governments of the United States and several European countries — has lent new energy to their campaign.

Signatories to the joint statement now hope Al-Sisi will seek to open a new page with liberal and leftist parties that supported the ouster of the Brotherhood, but which moved away from the interim regime over social and democratic rights.

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