By Semanur Karaman and Sara Katrine Brandt
This has to stop. Ever since the regime change on 3 July 2013, the international community has been watching the preposterous persecution of active citizens, merely for expressing dissent or calling for political reform in the country.
The level of absurdity in criminalising voices of dissent reached a new low when the Public Prosecutor’s office decided to charge Azza Soliman with breaching the draconian Law No 107, commonly known as the Protest Law. Azza’s crime appears to be that she simply witnessed the murder of a peaceful activist at the hands of the Egyptian police.
Azza Soliman is an internationally renowned Egyptian human rights defender and a lawyer. On 24 January 2015, she was sitting at a cafe with colleagues and family while the Egyptian government brutally cracked down on the peaceful commemoration of the 25 January Revolution, leaving many injured and dozens dead all over Egypt.
What happened following the incident sent shivers down the spine.
Although Egyptian authorities have, under public pressure, initiated legal proceedings in respect of the murder, during a protest in January this year, of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh – a 32-year-old mother, poet and member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party – the trial appears to be a sham as the key witness to the murder, Azza, is being subjected to harassment and intimidation.
The Egyptian authorities continue to undermine constitutionally-recognised rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and have denounced those who express democratic dissent as part of a “war of terrorism” atmosphere. The regime is maliciously manipulating its own war on terror to silence all voices of dissent, when it is obvious that peaceful human rights defenders who are critical of the government are targeted. Hundreds of political and civil society activists are still behind bars on trumped-up charges.
And on top of it all, now the Egyptian authorities are persecuting an internationally renowned female human rights defender and lawyer for being a witness to their merciless crime.
Let us break down Azza’s crimes for you. On 24 January , Azza witnessed the brutal murder of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, as the Egyptian authorities violently suppressed the fourth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution. Azza was not even a participant in the peaceful protest, but only a witness to the sad incident.
Azza, despite knowing the hostile attitude of Egyptian authorities’ towards anyone calling for political reform and the recognition of human rights, voluntarily went to the Prosecutor General’s office to provide her testimony, highlighting the police’s responsibility in Shaimaa’s death. By doing so, she ultimately risked five years in prison. At the Prosecutor General’s office, where she was held for an entire night, Azza was questioned on accusations of breaching the Protest Law, before the prosecution decided to release her. On 23 March, to impede Azza’s call for justice, the prosecutor changed Azza’s status from being a “witness” to the event to a “defendant” for breaching public order in an illegal protest.
A nightmare of judicial persecution began when Azza was subjected to criminal proceedings before the Abdeen Misdemeanour Court on 4 April . Following a series of routine postponements, Azza was acquitted of all charges on 23 May. In the meantime, Azza managed to establish a civil society Coalition for the Protection of Witnesses in Egypt, and launch it at a conference in Cairo on 7 May where significant stakeholders, also from the Egyptian government, participated and supported the alliance.
Azza’s nightmare is not over. She needs your support. On 26 May, the prosecutor decided to appeal the innocent verdict for Azza Soliman and her next hearing will be on 13 June.
Azza is being judicially harassed for nothing more than witnessing the truth. She is being persecuted for reminding the Egyptian authorities of their constitutional obligations to protect freedom of assembly, expression and association.
Human rights defenders in Egypt including Azza will not be intimidated by ongoing judicial harassment based on trumped up charges. Their struggle will undoubtedly continue. But will the international community remain silent in the face of this latest outrage by the Egyptian government?
Semanur Karaman is a feminist activist from Turkey, specialising on freedoms pertaining to civil society, with a specific focus on Women Human Rights Defenders in the Middle East and North Africa. She is a Policy and Advocacy Officer at the global civil society organization CIVICUS and has worked as a researcher for the local Turkish NGO Third Sector Foundation of Turkey.
Sara Katrine Brandt is based in Cairo, where she is the International Advocacy Advisor of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA). Sara engages in international policy processes at the United Nations and the European Union about women’s rights.