The 15-year prison sentence served to political activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and 24 others on Wednesday is “an outrageous travesty of justice,” said international human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
Abdel Fattah and 24 others were sentenced in absentia by the Cairo Criminal Court on Wednesday morning for violating last year’s controversial Protest Law. The court also fined the defendants with EGP 100,000 each and ordered they be placed under police observation for five years after serving their time in prison.
Abdel Fattah’s sisters, Mona and Sanaa Seif, staged a protest against Wednesday’s sentence with other human rights activists outside the Presidential Palace on Thursday.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International, called for the activists’ “immediate and unconditional” release in an Amnesty statement released on Wednesday.
“Protesting peacefully is not a crime,” said Sahraoui. “It’s deeply troubling that, just days into Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s presidency, courts are already jailing government critics. By locking up one of the leading activists in Egypt, the authorities are sending a clear message that they will not tolerate anyone daring to challenge or criticise them.”
Al-Sisi was sworn in as Egypt’s new president on Sunday during a daylong inauguration ceremony after reaping 96.9% of the valid votes during the May presidential elections.
Commenting on the highly controversial Protest Law, former defence minister Al-Sisi had said during his electoral campaign that issuing the Protest Law was a necessity and a demand, adding “irresponsible protests could lead to the collapse of the nation.”
Hugh Robertson, UK foreign office minister of state for Middle East policy, called on the Egyptian government to review the Protest Law and ensure the rights for freedom of expression and association are preserved. Robertson noted in a press statement released on Thursday that such rigs are preserved in the new constitution.
Article 73 of the newly passed constitution gives citizens the right to organise peaceful public assemblies, marches and protests after notifying the authorities, leaving the manner of notification up to the laws.
Robertson, who expressed his concern over Wednesday’s sentencing, stressed his state’s continued belief that “the best way for Egyptians to achieve the goals of Egypt’s 25 January Revolution is through an inclusive political process which respects human rights.”
The 25 defendants were arrested following a protest held on 26 November last year in objection to military trials of civilians, held two days after the issuance of the Protest Law.
They were accused of violating the Protest Law, “thuggery”, acquiring weapons during a protest, illegal assembly, blocking roads and attacking a police officer and stealing his radio. Amnesty International described the charges as “politically motivated”.
Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork, said on Wednesday that the dispersal of the aforementioned protest “showed that the police regarded the new assembly law as a carte blanche to attack protesters”.
Human Rights Watch condemned Wednesday’s “harsh” sentence. Stork said in a press release that the ruling shows that “Egypt’s courts are content to enforce an outrageous law that effectively prohibits peaceful protest”.
Mahmoud Belal, one of the lawyers representing the defendants in court, said on Wednesday that the verdict was abrupt and the defendants were not called into court in time for the issuance of the verdict. Three of the defendants, Abdel Fattah, Wael Metwalli, and Mohamed Nouby, were arrested shortly afterwards in an implementation of the verdict.
Human Rights Watch condemned the issuance of the verdict in absentia, saying that it “casts doubt on the credibility of the legal process” as it compromises the defendants’ ability to “present a defence.”
The Social Popular Alliance Party called on the Supreme Judicial Council to investigate the issuance of the verdict in absentia before the scheduled time of the trial despite the presence of at least three defendants in time for the trial. The party called for the immediate release of the three defendants in a statement released on Wednesday condemning the sentencing.
The Freedom for the Brave campaign also condemned the sentence, adding that it aims to “terrorise whoever dares to oppose the [army] general’s rule,” in reference to Field Marshal Al-Sisi. The campaign added that the court was supposed to hear the witnesses’ testimonies before issuing its verdict.
The Protest Law was issued by former president Adly Mansour on 24 November 2013 to regulate the right to peaceful assembly. It has garnered wide criticism from domestic as well as international human rights organisations since then.
The defendants sentenced on Wednesday were arrested on 26 November, except for Abdel Fattah who was arrested from his home on 28 November, despite announcing his intention to hand himself in. They were all released on bail in separate groups.
Abdel Fattah had been legally prosecuted during the former regimes of Mohamed Morsi, for allegedly inciting violence against Muslim Brotherhood members, and Hosni Mubarak. He was also detained for two months in 2011 under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Charges he faced then were assaulting soldiers during attacks carried out by army forces against a predominantly Coptic protest outside the Maspero building in October 2011.