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One Year of Crackdowns

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Since the 3 July military-backed ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, the judiciary has been busy with a seemingly unending flow of high-profile trials, and arrests have come in droves

Anti-Morsi protesters gather outside Ittahadeya presidential palace in June 2013. (Photo by Aaron T Rose)

Anti-Morsi protesters gather outside Ittahadeya presidential palace in June 2013.
(Photo by Aaron T Rose)

Since the 3 July military-backed ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, the judiciary has been busy with a seemingly unending flow of high-profile trials, and arrests have come in droves.

According to the Ministry of Interior, around 16,000 people have been arrested since Morsi was deposed. Wiki Thawra, a nonprofit cooperative compiling data from human rights groups in Egypt, places the number of arrests and prosecutions at over 41,000, and those who have been released from detainment claim Egypt’s prisons are becoming overcrowded at an alarming rate.

 

An Egyptian riot policeman points his gun towards at stone-throwers during clashes that broke out as Egyptian security forces moved in to disperse supporters of Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi by force in a huge protest camp near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque on August 14, 2013.  (AFP PHOTO /MOHAMMED ABDEL MONEIM )

An Egyptian riot policeman points his gun towards at stone-throwers during clashes that broke out as Egyptian security forces moved in to disperse supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Mohamed Morsi by force in a huge protest camp near Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque on August 14, 2013.
(AFP PHOTO /MOHAMMED ABDEL MONEIM )

The clearing of the sit-ins

The bloodiest day in Egypt this past year was 14 August, when large pro-Morsi sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adaweya Mosque in Cairo’s Nasr City and Nahda Square near Cairo University in Giza, were forcefully dispersed by Egyptian military and police forces.

Soon after the ouster, protesters supporting the return of Morsi set up tent communities outside the mosque and in the square, where thousands of men, women and children remained night and day, with many bussed in by the Muslim Brotherhood from the more conservative regions of Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta. After two separate deadly skirmishes with authorities, and persistent rumours that the protesters were harboring weapons caches, torturing political opponents, and refusing to let people leave, the government authorized the permanent dismantling of the sit-ins.

On the morning of 14 August security forces entered the sit-ins, which international watchdog Human Rights Watch would later label the “worst mass unlawful killings in the country’s modern history”. The Ministry of Health reported 595 civilians and 44 security personnel were killed. The government-based National Council for Human Rights put the number of civilians and police officers killed at 624 and 8, respectively.

The Muslim Brotherhood-backed Anti-Coup Alliance has said that 2,200 people were killed at Rabaa alone, however the number was never confirmed by independent sources.

Wiki Thawra lists 14 August as the worst day in the past year for arrests and prosecutions, with 9,759 across the country including 1,021 in Cairo, 2,048 in Giza, 1,140 in Fayoum, and a whopping 3,276 in Minya.

Two days later, on 16 August, clashes erupted in Ramses Square when security forces attempted to clear the large Fateh Mosque, occupied by Morsi supporters. At least 173 people were killed according to the Ministry of Health, as fighting spread to the nearby 6th of October and 15th of May bridges.

In response to the clearing of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins, on 14 August interim President Adly Mansour issued a state of emergency, imposing a broad curfew across most of Egypt’s governorates. Initially, the curfew lasted from 7pm until 6am, but was eventually relaxed to 1am to 5 am (except on Fridays—the common day of protest in Egypt—when it still began at 7pm). On 14 November the curfew finally expired despite early declarations it would last only a month.

 

The Protest Law 

In the days leading to 24 November, human rights defenders and NGOs were alarmed and vocal. A law was in the making. Although officially it was called the Law to Regulate the Right to Public Meetings, Rallies and Peaceful Protests, since its inception it has simply been referred to as the Protest Law. Despite scathing reports and a general view among NGOs that the law is extremely repressive, it passed.

A mere two days after interim President Adly Mansour ratified the law, the fears of many came true as prominent activists were arrested. The message was clear.

A protest, organised by the No Military Trials for Civilians group and scheduled – before the law was issued – for 26 November took place outside the Shura Council, and was forcibly dispersed.

Security forces used water cannons before the arrests began, in accordance with the law, which also stipulates that organisers of any public assembly must submit a written notice to the nearest police station with their plans at least three working days in advance.

It also gives police officials the right to cancel, postpone or change the route of a protest.

Left and right, criticism of the law was clear. The United States called on Egyptian authorities to “respect individual rights”, in reference to the law. On the same day, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the law breaches international law and standards. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the Egyptian government to “amend or repeal this seriously-flawed new law”, while the criticism continued to relentlessly pour in.

The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) took action and filed a lawsuit, along with Centre to Support the Rule of Law. On 17 June, the Administrative Court allowed the referral of the law to Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) for appeal.  This could be significant for challengers and critics, since the SCC can cancel laws if they do not comply with the constitution. The court’s rulings are final and cannot be challenged. They still have to wait for the SCC’s ruling in October, and, in the meantime, people found to violate the law may face up to five years in prison and/or fines between EGP 50,000 and 200,000.

 

Award-winning lawyer Mahienour El-Massry appears in court on Saturday appealing a verdict sentencing her to two years in prison. (Photo by Ahmed Nagy/ Courtesy of the Free Mahienour Facebook Page)

Award-winning lawyer Mahienour El-Massry appears in court on Saturday appealing a verdict sentencing her to two years in prison.
(Photo by Ahmed Nagy/ Courtesy of the Free Mahienour Facebook Page)

Protesters’ trials

Less than a month after their arrest during a late 2013 protest, a group of 21 girls and women were sentenced to prison in one of the most high profile cases of the year. On 27 November, the 14 who were adults were sentenced to 11 years and one month in prison, the minors were sent to a juvenile detention facility until they reach adulthood, when they must be released.

The protesters belonged to a group called “7am”, which organises protests early in the morning before school starts. On 31 October, they were arrested as part of an ongoing security crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the ousted president.

The sentence was widely decried, and politicians and groups inside Egypt called for a pardon. International human rights watchdog Amnesty International described them as prisoners of conscience and condemned their sentencing. Human Rights Watch called on prosecutors to drop the charges and said there appeared to be “no credible evidence.”

In December, they appealed the verdict and received a dramatically reduced sentence. The 14 adults were handed one-year suspended verdicts, and the minors ordered released.

Cases against protesters continued. Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, co-founders of 6 April Youth Movement, and political activist and blogger Ahmed Douma were sentenced on 22 December to three years of hard labour and fined EGP 50,000 under the Protest Law. Their sentence was upheld in April, unleashing an array of criticism by political parties and NGOs, both local and international.

Renowned blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, famed for having been prosecuted under ousted presidents Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, and under the interim rule of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was sentenced alongside 24 others to 15 years in prison on 11 June and fined EGP 100,000. Human Rights Watch described the sentence as “harsh” and Amnesty International said it was “an outrageous travesty of justice”.

The 25 defendants were accused of violating the Protest Law, in addition to other charges including  “thuggery”, acquiring weapons during a protest, illegal assembly, blocking roads and attacking a police officer and stealing his radio. They were arrested following the protest held on 26 November last year in objection to the military trials of civilians— two days after the implementation of the Protest Law.  They described their sentencing as “part of a sequence of retaliations” for their political activity.

Behind bars serving a two-year sentence is Alexandrian attorney Mahienour El-Massry, who, just last week, received Ludovic Trarieux Award, given annually to a lawyer for contributions to the defence of human rights. She was sentenced on 20 May, along with eight others and fined EGP 50,000 for protesting without a permit—breaking the Protest Law.

The protest in which El-Massry was arrested took place in December and was organised outside the trial of police officers who were charged with the murder of Khalid Said in December 2011. The case is currently being appealed and the next hearing is scheduled for 20 July.

 

Minya death sentences

In March and April, more than 1,200 people reported to be Morsi supporters were sentenced to death by the same court and judge, in two separate cases, sparking hefty criticism and condemnation.  Morsi supporters have been heavily targeted by authorities ever since his ouster in July, Muslim Brotherhood leaders were put behind bars after the ouster and are now facing several trials.

A total of 529 defendants were sentenced to death in March for attacking a police station and killing an officer last August. On Monday, 28 April, the court decided to uphold 37 of the death sentences, 17 were acquitted and the rest received reduced sentences of 25 years, the equivalent of a life sentence in Egypt, and fined EGP 20,000. The sentence was condemned locally and globally by several countries and organisations including the United Nations, United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, the European Union, Germany, and by international human rights groups.

On the same day, the court doled out an additional 683 preliminary death sentences, including one to the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Badie. On 21 June, the sentences of 183 of them were affirmed by court, bringing about more criticism.

This may not be the end for the defendants, who still have before them an appeals process, but for rights groups, the trial signals what they described as a “travesty of justice”.

 

Australian journalist Peter Greste (C) of Al-Jazeera and his colleagues stand inside the defendants cage during their trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at Cairo's Tora prison on March 5, 2014.  (AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI)

Australian journalist Peter Greste (C) of Al-Jazeera and his colleagues stand inside the defendants cage during their trial for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at Cairo’s Tora prison on March 5, 2014.
(AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI)

Al Jazeera English trial 

On the evening of 29 December, two suites at the Zamalek Marriott hotel used by Al Jazeera English as a base of operations were raided by Egyptian police. Cairo Bureau Chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and award-winning correspondent Peter Greste were arrested and taken into custody. Baher Mohamed, a producer for Al Jazeera English, was arrested the same night from his home in suburban Cairo.

At the Marriott, investigators confiscated the journalists’ equipment, including cameras and editing equipment to later be used as evidence. Other, more banal items, such as power strips and laptops, were also taken.  At Mohamed’s house, investigators found a used bullet casing. But the real coup de grace for the investigative team were leaflets and pamphlets supporting the Muslim Brotherhood found at the hotel—which prosecutors would use to link the journalists to the then-banned Islamist group.

On 29 January, charges were officially brought against the defendants from the Qatari-based news channel, who had already been in prison for a month. Fahmy, Greste, and Mohamed were handed a litany of serious charges which included belonging to a terrorist organisation; calling for disruption of the law; preventing state institutions from conducting their affairs; broadcasting false news to support a terrorist group; and harming the national interest of the country. Fahmy, specifically, was accused of creating a “terrorist media network”.

The trial of Fahmy, Greste, Mohamed and 17 other defendants began on 20 February. Of the 20 defendants, only nine appeared in court—the rest were tried in absentia. Aside from the three journalists, five students were arrested from a Moqattam apartment in early January and grouped into the trial, though the parties claim to have never met one another. Another man—who runs an Islamic charity—was tried as well.

The evidence presented by the prosecution was strange. On multiple occasions, prosecutors exhibited video footage that was unrelated to Egypt, showed clips from networks other than Al Jazeera, and played sound recordings that were inaudible, offering it as evidence.

“Previous court dates have bizarrely included the prosecution showing footage of Sky News Arabia tourism reports, BBC podcasts, songs by Gotye, photo-shopped images of Mohammed Fahmy, Peter Greste’s family photos, and some of Greste’s award-winning work from East Africa,” said Al Jazeera in a statement.

Greste, an Australian, was one of four foreign defendants named in the case. Fahmy, recognized by the court only as an Egyptian, also holds Canadian citizenship.

The other foreigners, tried in absentia, were Britons Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, who have previously worked for Al Jazeera in Cairo, but were not in the country at the time of arrest. Dutch journalist Rena Netjes is also a defendant, but has never worked for Al Jazeera, and was allowed to leave Egypt following an arrangement between the Dutch embassy and the foreign ministry.

After 14 court sessions spanning four months, the journalists at the trial were sentenced to seven years in prison each. Mohamed was given an additional three years for possession of the bullet casing. Two of the other six in court were acquitted, while all those tried in absentia were given 10 years.

International condemnation of the lengthy prison sentences—unexpected by many—was swift and harsh. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “appalled by the outcome”, noting “unacceptable procedural shortcomings during the trial process”. John Kerry, United States Secretary of State called the verdict “chilling” and “draconian”.  Human right groups weighed in as well. Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, called it, a “dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when journalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job.”

In a separate case, after 306 days in prison without charges, and 147 days on hunger strike, Al Jazeera Arabic journalist Abdallah Elshamy was released from prison on 17 June. Elshamy was swept up in a mass arrest while covering the violent dispersal of the sit-in at Rabaa.

Al Jazeera English has made it clear that it no longer has staff in Egypt, and it takes a separate, more neutral editorial stance than its controversial sister networks Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr.

 

Assault on press freedom

Press freedom watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a report last February detailing the extraordinary hardships faced by journalists working in Egypt in 2013.

Violations against the press were rampant during the 90 days following Morsi’s ouster, with 71 reported violations against the press. Of the 71 violations, 32 journalists were detained, 27 were assaulted or otherwise harassed, nine offices were raided, and there were three cases of news teams’ equipment being confiscated.

The CPJ Annual Census of Imprisoned Journalists ranked Egypt as the ninth worst offender in the world, but the number of journalists behind bars has increased significantly since the report was published in December.

According to the CPJ, 10 journalists have been killed while working in Egypt since the January 2011 toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Six journalists have died since 3 July 2013, and 15 are currently being held in detention.

Reporters Without Borders annual press freedom index ranked Egypt 159th out of 180 countries, and beseeched President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to guarantee the “fundamental freedom of all Egyptian citizens and foreign citizens” residing in Egypt.

Journalists seen as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood have been targeted in particular. Last week, journalist Abdel Rahman Shaheen was sentenced to three years in prison and a EGP 10,000 fine on Tuesday. Suez-based Shaheen had previously worked for pro-Islamist television channel Misr 25, and for the official newspaper of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)—the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, both of which have been closed by the government since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.

Adopted in January of this year, Article 70 of Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press, while Article 71 prohibits government censorship of newspapers and media outlets except in “time of war or general mobilisation”, though CPJ and Reporters Without Borders have both said the constitution has been repeatedly ignored.

About the authors

Aaron T. Rose

Aaron T. Rose is an American journalist in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter: @Aaron_T_Rose


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