Amnesty International called on the Egyptian authorities on Saturday to release 22 activists on trial for defying the controversial Protest Law.
“The Egyptian authorities must release a group of activists on trial for defying the country’s draconian protest law,” the rights group said in a statement released ahead of Sunday’s verdict in their trial for taking part in an unauthorised protest.
“Prominent human rights defender Yara Sallam and well-known activist Sanaa Seif are among 22 accused of participating in an unauthorised protest aimed at threatening “public peace”, among other spurious charges,” the statement added.
“This show trial, based on highly questionable evidence, is the latest example of the Egyptian authorities’ determination to quash peaceful protest and stifle any form of dissent,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“It is unacceptable to detain anyone for peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression and assembly,” she added.
Seif and the others protested outside Itihadiya Palace in late June in response to a court verdict against her brother, prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah.
Earlier in the same month, Abdel Fattah and 24 other defendants were sentenced in absentia to 15 years, handed an EGP 100,000 fine and put under surveillance for a period of five years. They were found guilty of violating the Protest Law. They were later granted a retrial.
Amnesty said Sallam was arrested along with her cousin while buying a bottle of water on 21 June in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, where a protest was taking place.
Her cousin was released the next day but Yara Sallam was kept in detention after security forces found out that she works at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
“Egypt must drop the farcical charges against Sallam, who did not even participate in the protest in question,” said Sahraoui.
“The disturbing truth is that she appears to have been put on trial solely because of her human rights work,” Sahraoui added.
Lawyers for the other 21 defendants told Amnesty that evidence used against them, including video recordings, did not show any violence by protesters.
“The authorities have a track record of baseless arrests, politically motivated trials and convictions on dubious evidence. All the protesters in the group are most likely to be prisoners of conscience, held for daring to defy what is effectively a ban on protests in Egypt,” said Sahraoui.
“If there is sufficient genuine evidence of violent criminal activity which can be tested in court against any of the protesters, then they may be tried only on recognisably criminal charges in proceedings that fully conform with international standards for a fair trial,” she added.
Amnesty expressed concerns that pre-trial detention is being used by the Egyptian authorities as “a punitive measure to silence dissent.”
According to Amnesty, the Egyptian authorities have been using pre-trial detention for prolonged periods, in some instances exceeding one year, without any justification.
The issuing of the Protest Law by the interim government in November 2013 came at a time of frequent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and security forces. Since the law was enacted, it has been used to build several cases against students and activists on charges of “illegal assembly”.
The legislation includes restrictions on protests, marches and public meetings and requires a three-day notice for protests. It allows the Minister of Interior to move or change the route of assemblies or cancel them.