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Imprisoned hunger-striking protesters in Egypt may be freed

Egyptian protesters shout slogans against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the government during a demonstration protesting the government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, April 15, 2016
Egyptian protesters shout slogans against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the government during a demonstration protesting the government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, Egypt, April 15, 2016

REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 25 May 2016.

Egyptian courts have sentenced more than 150 people to prison terms since the beginning of May 2016 for participating in peaceful protests or spreading false information. On May 24, an appeals court replaced the prison sentences for 47 who had started hunger strikes, with a fine of 100,000 L.E ($11,270 USD) each which they have to pay before being released.

The authorities should free and drop charges against them and release hundreds of other activists and protesters in pretrial detention on charges that violate freedom of peaceful assembly and speech.

“Egyptian authorities are using national security threats to crush dissent among Egypt's youth,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “This is a policy of insecurity, not security, leaving young people unable find the smallest space for peaceful dissent that won't land them in jail.”

Courts sentenced 152 people in three trials to between two and five years in prison for protest-related charges, and 2 others to shorter sentences in other trials. Most were sentenced under Law 107 of 2013, which prohibits peaceful protests without Interior Ministry approval.

Police apprehended all of the defendants in the days leading up to and during the dispersal of mostly peaceful protests on April 15 and 25 over the government decision to cede two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. The 47 defendants said, on May 18, after sentencing that they would begin hunger strikes. Three had been hospitalized in serious condition, activists said, but officials have released no information about them.

At least 86 others are awaiting decisions in three other ongoing trials. The Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters, an independent group of lawyers and activists, said that 585 people, including children, are facing charges out of the 1,312 arrested between April 15 and May 5.

Egyptian authorities are using national security threats to crush dissent among Egypt’s youth. This is a policy of insecurity, not security, leaving young people unable find the smallest space for peaceful dissent that won’t land them in jail.

The Qasr al-Nile minor offenses court in Cairo handed down two-year prison sentences with labor on May 14 to 51 protesters arrested at protests on April 25, 18 of them in absentia after they were released earlier on bail.

A minor offenses court in Cairo for terrorism cases, North Giza Circuit 21, handed down five-year sentences with labor in two trials to 101 other protesters rounded up on April 25 in the Dokki and Agouza neighborhoods. Of those sentenced, 54 had been released on bail and were sentenced in absentia. The court also fined 79 in the Dokki group 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($11,270) collectively. On May 24, the Dokki Appeals Court for minor offenses canceled the initial prison sentences for the 47 present defendants, who started hunger strikes, and fined each of them 100,000 pounds. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they either have to pay the fine or spend three months in jail.

Those convicted in absentia are entitled to file for a retrial before the same court and only the defendants who were present have the right to appeal before an appeals court. On May 21, the Qasr al-Nile Appeals Court adjourned the case of 33 protesters to June 4.

The authorities released 13 children on bail in the Qasr al-Nile case and another 10 in the Dokki and Agouza cases but referred them for trials that have yet to start before juvenile minor offenses courts.

On May 19, the Muqattam Court for minor offenses sentenced activist Yasser al-Qot to one year on charges of disseminating false news and possessing anti-state publications. A defense lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the judge “violated essential fair trials principles” by issuing his ruling in the first session and refusing basic defense requests, such as obtaining a full copy of the case file and requiring the security officers to testify in court where the defense could challenge them.

Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the Dokki and Agouza cases were the first they had heard of taking place in a terrorism court for minor offenses. Sameh Samir, a lawyer with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, said there appeared to be no basis for referring some protesters to a terrorism court and others to a regular court. Samir, who is representing protesters in the Qasr al-Nile case, also said that the authorities did not allow him sufficient time to meet with his clients and that defendants were kept inside a glass barrier in the courtroom that did not allow them to hear or see properly.

The Dokki and Agouza trials took place in the Central Giza Prison, inside a camp for the Central Security Forces known as Camp 10.5 Kilometers, and the Qasr al-Nile case in the Tora Police Institute in southern Cairo. Judges have increasingly held trials at security institutions instead of courthouses. Defense lawyers say that such institutions, which are overseen by the Interior Ministry – the arresting agency – are not neutral sites and jeopardize the neutrality of the trial.

International principles state that everyone should have the right to a public trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law. The African Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance state that to guarantee the impartiality of the tribunal and to ensure it is open to the public, judicial bodies should have a permanent venue.

Lawyers said that the judges in the three cases appeared to rely entirely on police arrest reports and security investigation notes. The ruling in the Qasr al-Nile case, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, referenced arrest reports that alleged that protesters obstructed traffic, threatened public order, and “instigated” against the government.

The ruling also appeared to be based on speculation, without factual evidence that was considered by the court, from the notes of investigators of the Interior Ministry's National Security Agency. The notes claimed that protesters terrorized citizens and were part of a larger plot to undermine the country's stability. Law 107 of 2013 states prison sentences for such vaguely described acts.

The judges also relied on the Assembly Law of 1914 as well as article 102 bis of the penal code, which punishes “disseminating false news,” saying that the protesters “disseminated false news that the state relinquished the two islands of Tiran and Sanafir,” intending to harm public order and national interests.

Lawyers and activists said that security forces assaulted detained protesters, injuring some of them, at the Red Mountain Central Security Forces Camp near Cairo on April 30 when they refused to be transferred to another prison before meeting prosecutors. On May 17, Freedom for the Brave, an independent activist group, reported that Central Giza Prison guards beat detainees in the first floor of the prison. Prosecutors should investigate the allegations, Human rights Watch said.

Several defendants, apprehended in sweeping mass arrests, are still in pretrial detention. They include Malek Adly and Haitham Mohamedeen, human rights lawyers; Ahmed Abdallah, chairman of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms; Mohamed Nagy and Mina Thabet, human rights researchers; and Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka, both journalists. Adly's wife and lawyers said that authorities denied him visits for him for 14 days and that he was placed in solitary confinement and assaulted by guards at Tora al-Mazraa Prison.

A few activists said they would not appeal their sentences as a protest against the judicial system, which many see as a rubber stamp for the National Security Agency. Yassine Mohamed, a young activist sentenced to five years, wrote on his Facebook page that he would not appeal, saying that he “doesn't acknowledge this cartoon law anymore.” He had earlier been sentenced to 15 years in another case stemming from a 2013 peaceful protest but released in 2015 following a presidential pardon. The pardon did not apply to another case in which he was sentenced to two years. An appeal on that case is pending.

On May 4, the Sayeda Zeinab minor offenses court in Cairo sentenced the activist Sanaa Seif to six months for “insulting the judiciary” after she refused to cooperate with prosecutors interrogating her in the same case that led to al-Qot's one year sentence. Her lawyers said she told the prosecutors that the judicial system had lost its objectivity and commitment to achieve justice. The prosecutors dropped the original charges but filed new charges of insulting the judiciary. Seif declined to appeal and is being held in Qanater Women's Prison.

On May 9, three United Nations special rapporteurs issued a joint statement expressing concern over the “worsening crackdown on peaceful protests” in Egypt and urged the government to stop “disproportionate reactions” that contribute to “deteriorating climate.”

“Members of Egypt's judiciary have become an integral part of the government's crackdown on dissent,” Houry said. “It is no one's interest to leave no space for young people to express their discontent with the situation.”

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