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A Hard Blow to Political Freedom in Egypt

by ALESSANDRA BAJEC

Twenty-one women -including girls as young as 15- were handed down heavy prison sentences by Alexandria Misdemeanour Court on Nov. 27, after being arrested, end of October, for protesting against the military’s July 3 ouster of President Morsi. The Egyptian court sentenced fourteen women –most aged 18 to 22- to 11 years and one month in prison, and seven female minors -15 to 17 years old- to juvenile detention until they reach the age of majority. The tough verdict marks another setback for freedom of expression in Egypt but also an unprecedented step by the new leadership to take women out of the political scene.

Ahmed Shazli, head of the Alexandria branch of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), couldn’t find the words to comment on the verdict when he came out of the courtroom. For him, the sentence essentially okays imprisonment of protesters for expressing dissent, and hints at a comeback to Mubarak styled autocratic regime and oppressive practices.

pic.1_by Rania Helmy_independent journalist

The 21 female defendants were convicted on several charges including damaging public property and stirring violence.

In addition, six men –who are said to belong to the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Alexandria- were sentenced to 15 years in prison for instigating violence during the protest.

Shazli decided to document the case after he heard about the arrest of the 21 women, which he defined as a violation of personal, civil rights and gender equality, moreover involving under age youth.

The young women are part of ‘7 am’, a youth movement launched last month in Alexandria that holds protests in the early morning -before school starts- against what members describe as the military coup that led to Morsi’s overthrow.

The girls were arrested on Oct. 31 during a demonstration near Stanley Bridge, on the Alexandria corniche, when protest participants formed a human chain before they were attacked by security forces. They were transferred to the Alexandria Security Directorate, where they were brought before the Public Prosecution. The adult women were sent to the Damanhour women’s prison while the minors were placed in the Defense Care Facility in Muharram Bek.

One young man was also arrested but released soon after, as the police reportedly established he had no connection with ‘7 am’ group.

Defence attorney Ayman Dally got involved in the case as one of the detainees is his niece. He recollected from testimonies that security forces intervened with six armed vehicles separating demonstrators from the crowd – a well known military tactic- leading to police cruisers to arrest the girls, some of them at gunpoint. Dally pointed out it was a joint operation carried out by the police and army, inviting to watch youtube videos that clearly show that.

The general prosecution charged the women with belonging to the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood, promoting ideas of the group, possessing and distributing flyers inciting violence, assembly, threatening violence, obstructing public transport and vandalizing properties.
A statement by the prosecutor general claimed the defendants denied the charges against them.

As EIPR representative, Shazli condemned the arrest of 21 women stressing that the right of peaceful assembly is a fundamental right of every citizen. He dismissed the allegations as fabrication of reports by the police, adding that such practices are aimed to exclude women from the public space through direct targeting. EIPR’s director expressed deep concern over the unprecedented mass arrest of female protestors.

Dally remembered bizarre incidents following the arrest such as the quick transfer of the women from Alexandria police station to prison, while lawyers were making appeal against their detention –which was then rejected- the sudden appointment of a new judge –by the Minister of Justice- who took over the case, the denied access of lawyers to court at the juvenile facility, or the prolonged custody of the defendants.
Alexandria prosecution renewed detention of the women for 15 days on Nov. 12 pending investigation.

Attorney Dally rebuffed the accusations considering them false. He acknowledged the power of authorities to set measures of public order, however he argued against the use of ‘illegal methods’, under the cover of a ‘legal makeup’, to oppress citizens who gather peacefully and express their opinion.

‘’In no circumstances, these girls can be seen as terrorists or criminals’’, Dally stated.

The lawyer also lamented the repeated delays from the public attorney office in providing copy of the case file to the court. The file was received a day and a half before the trial on Nov. 20, which gave the defence team a very limited time to review the case, the judge himself received the case the morning of the trial. On the day, the police did not bring the defendants to court citing ‘security reasons’. Unable to trial the girls in their absence, the court finally decided to postpone for another week.
A plethora of lawyers from four human rights organizations, private lawyers and lawyers assigned by parents of the detainees worked on the case, standing for the right to freedom of expression for all.

In Dally’s view, detention of the women was a well planned ‘set up’, designed by some high ranking security officers, to specifically target women, to prevent other women from coming out and demonstrating.

‘’The outcome is, nevertheless, the opposite’’, the lawyer opined, ‘’we see more women, not less, in the streets’’. He called the targeting of women by security forces a ‘mistake’, suggesting there’s already some resentment in the police department, since this case will spark a lot of anger in Egypt, where women are a ‘red line’.

Hatem, an Islamist activist in Alexandria, is acquainted with the girls in ‘7am’. He apologized for not being able to bring any of them, saying they were scared to go into town with the risk of being caught up by police officers.
The fact that 21 women were arrested, and no man was detained, is something new to Egyptians.

Hatem explained that women have played a big part in anti-government protests since after the ouster of Morsi, their large participation has in turn prompted security forces to respond with repressive methods. Which has, instead, generated greater determination among women to continue protesting.

In his opinion, female protesters were deliberately convicted to scare women off, and thus silence an active part of the society.
‘’What’s shocking is that for the first time young women have been detained in Egypt’’, the activist commented, ‘’it’s totally unacceptable’’.

The conviction of the 21 women comes amid other ongoing violations committed by security forces against freedom of expression.
Earlier this month, 12 university students were sentenced to 17 years in prison over riots at Al-Azhar University drawing criticism over the harshness of the sentence.
Egypt’s authorities have cracked down hard on Islamist backers of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. Security forces have recently moved against secular youth activists opposed to the military and police.

Alessandra Bajec lived in Palestine between June 2010 and May 2011 starting to work as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in various Palestinian newswires, the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla, among others.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. Between 2010 and 2011, she lived in Palestine. Her articles have appeared in the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, IRIN and The Majalla among others. She can be followed on Twitter at @AlessandraBajec

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