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Cabinet approves draft of amendments dealing with sexual harassment penalties

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CAIRO: The Cabinet of Ministers approved a draft of amendments to the Penal Code this week that will impose harsher punishments on sex offenders.

The draft of amendments, proposed by President Hosni Mubarak, was approved due to the increase in sexual assaults and violations against women, according to the Cabinet’s official website.

The Cabinet’s website added that the penalties currently in effect for sexual harassment are inconsistent with the severity of the crimes.

According to a study by several NGOs, rape incidents have been on the rise in Egypt, with 27 incidents reported daily. Another study found that 95 percent of rape incidents go unreported.

Article 267 of Egypt’s Penal Code states that the penalty for rape can range anywhere from 15 years imprisonment to the death penalty, if the rape is committed as part of another crime.

The amendments add an article that stipulates that a sentence can’t be reduced for any sex offender, unless the defendant is sentenced to death. The amendment states that if a defendant is sentenced to death, a judge can decide to reduce the defendant’s sentence to life imprisonment based on the judge’s own discretion.

The draft of amendments also proposes to annul Article 17 of the Penal Code, which gives judges the authority to reduce punishments without having to provide any justification for doing so. Article 17 has typically been used by judges in cases involving rape or honor killings.

“We have been calling for the amendment of Article 17 of the Penal Code for a long time,” said Ziad Al-Oleimy, a lawyer and human rights activist. “It’s one of the loopholes we have in the legal system that doesn’t give lawyers the right to appeal the judge’s reduced sentence in front of a higher court.”

The draft of amendments also includes sexual harassment incidents, which aren’t considered as severe as rape cases.

According to Article 268 of Egypt’s Penal Code, the current sentence for sexual harassment — which entails physical contact — ranges from 3 to 7 years in prison. If the victim is younger than 16 years old, the sentence can be increased to 15 years imprisonment. The approved draft of amendments — if implemented — would make a sentence increase possible if the sexual harassment victim is younger than 18 years of age.

The draft of amendments also proposes to add sexual harassment incidents that do not include physical contact to the Penal Code as well. The Cabinet’s website specifically cited situations in which groups of boys surround passersby in the streets and sexually harass, threaten or frighten them.

The draft of amendments also covers sexual harassment via text messages, cell phones, and the internet.

“What translates as sexual harassment isn’t [currently] specified in Egyptian laws, which makes it difficult to [prosecute] sexual offenders,” Hafez Abou Saeda, the secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told Daily News Egypt.

A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women living in Cairo said they have been harassed in some way, regardless of their age, class, dress or appearance.

Sixty-two percent of men also admitted to harassing women.

However, some women’s rights activists downplayed the amendments.

“We already have laws penalizing sexual harassment, but the problem is with the security forces and the judiciary system,” Aser Yasser, a women’s rights activist and a victim of sexual harassment, told Daily News Egypt.

Yasser was sexually harassed by a group of young men in Cairo on her way home from work in 2009. She filed a lawsuit against the alleged sex offenders, but the court found them innocent based on a lack of evidence.

“When a woman files a complaint for sexual harassment, she’s asked very provocative questions by police, [such as] what [she was] wearing when the incident occurred,” Yasser said, insinuating that police usually place the blame for sexual harassment incidents on women.

“What the government needs to do is to help change people’s behavior in the community, instead of just harshening penalties,” Al-Oleimy told Daily News Egypt.

“A sexual offender is the result of his community and culture,” said Al-Oleimy, who defended Yasser in her sexual harassment court case. “He needs to be rehabilitated to return to his community as a good individual.”

In addition to Yasser, Al-Oleimy also defended Noha Rushdi — a 27-year-old documentary filmmaker who won a sexual harassment case in a 2008 ruling that many deemed to be rare. The defendant was sentenced to three years in prison.

The website Harrasmap.org was recently launched to allow women to quickly report instances of harassment via text messages, Twitter, or the Harrassmap.org website itself. The reports are then loaded onto a digital map of Cairo to display harassment hotspots and areas that might be dangerous for women to walk alone. The data is shared with activists, media, and the police.

“Police need to understand that a woman’s body is more sacred and valuable than her stolen bag or cell phone,” Yasser said.

 

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