The Egyptian authorities must release a group of activists on trial for defying the country’s draconian protest law, Amnesty International said ahead of Sunday’s verdict in their trial for taking part in an unauthorized protest.
Prominent human rights defender Yara Sallam and well-known activist Sanaa Seif are among 22 people charged with taking part in an unauthorized protest aimed at threatening “public peace”, among other spurious charges, despite the fact that Yara Sallam did not even participate in the protest. If convicted the activists could face up to five years in prison.
“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 International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“All activists targeted simply for defying Egypt’s unlawful protest law must be released. It is unacceptable to detain anyone for peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression and assembly.”
Yara 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 she works at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading human rights organization in Egypt.
“Egypt must drop the farcical charges against Yara Sallam, who did not even participate in the protest in question,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The disturbing truth is that she appears to have been put on trial solely because of her human rights work. She is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately and unconditionally and all charges against her dropped.”
Lawyers for the other 21 defendants told Amnesty International that evidence used against them – including audio-visual evidence – 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 Hassiba Hadj 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 recognizably criminal charges in proceedings that fully conform with international standards for fair trial.”
The trial hearings of the 22 were convened in Tora Police Institute, a building annexed to the Tora Prison Complex where most of the defendants are detained, rather than in a courtroom. The families of the 22 defendants were prevented by authorities from attending the trial.
“Trying the defendants inside the Tora Prison Complex and not allowing the public to attend undermines the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair and public hearing and is contrary to international and Egyptian law,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Lawyers also told Amnesty International that during the last trial hearing on 11 October, the defendants could not hear the trial or communicate with their legal team because of a newly installed dark glass screen cutting off the defendants from the rest of the courtroom.
The judge also turned down repeated requests by the legal team to order the provisional release of the defendants despite the fact that there is no valid reason for their pre-trial detention.
Amnesty International has gathered mounting evidence showing that the Egyptian authorities have been using pre-trial detention for prolonged periods, in some instances exceeding one year, without any justification. The organization fears that pre-trial detention is being used by the Egyptian authorities as a punitive measure to silence dissent.
Pre-trial detention may only be used if it is established that there is a substantial risk of flight, harm to others or interference with the evidence or investigation, that cannot allayed by means short of detention. There must be an ongoing examination of the continuing lawfulness and necessity of detention in each individual case.
Last month President Abdel Fattah El Sisi gave a speech at the United Nations declaring that the “new Egypt” would respect freedom of speech, enforce the rule of law, respect the constitution and ensure the independence of the judiciary.
The protesters had been marching to Cairo’s presidential palace on 21 June when they were attacked by groups of men in civilian clothes.
Security forces arrested 24 people while dispersing the crowd. One was released and another, 16-year-old Islam Tawfik Mohamed Hassan, is facing trial before a juvenile court in a separate case.
Yara Sallam and six other women standing trial in this case are detained in al-Qanater Prison. The men are detained in Tora Prison.
The 23 defendants are facing charges of damaging property, displaying force with the aim of terrorizing passers-by and endangering their lives and taking part in a gathering of more than five people with the aim of threatening “public peace” and committing crimes.
Sanaa Seif’s father, the human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al Islam, passed away last August. Sanaa went on hunger strike to protest against the authorities’ refusal to allow her to spend some time with her father during his final days.
Egypt’s “Law Regulating the Right to Public Gathering Processions and Peaceful Protests” was passed by former president Adly Mansour in November 2013.
Under the draconian law, protest organizers must submit their plans to the authorities, who have the power to cancel or reroute proposed demonstrations. It also gives security forces powers to use excessive lethal force against peaceful unauthorized protests and detain peaceful demonstrators.