Egypt: Women’s rights activist among 17 facing spurious charges in security forces’ ‘cover up’
Photo: Mourners carry the coffin of Shaima al-Sabbagh, an Egyptian activist shot dead by security forces, during her funeral on January 25, 2015 ©AFP/Getty Images
Spurious charges have been brought against a women’s rights activist and 16 others after they testified as witnesses against the security forces, in a clear attempt by the Egyptian authorities to skew the scales of justice, said Amnesty International ahead of their trial hearing on 4 April.
Azza Soliman, founder of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, is one of 17 witnesses who came forward to give evidence about the killing of Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, an activist and poet who was shot dead on 24 January 2015 by security forces during the dispersal of a peaceful march in Cairo to commemorate those who died during the 2011 “25 January Revolution”. All those who came forward as witnesses are now facing charges of protesting without authorization and disturbing public order.
“The fact that the authorities are resorting to blatant intimidation tactics to silence witnesses shows just how the criminal justice system in Egypt is being used as a tool of repression,” said Said Boumedouha, Acting Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.
Azza Soliman and the other 16 witnesses who came forward are clearly being punished purely for criticizing the actions of the security forces that day
“Azza Soliman and the other 16 witnesses who came forward are clearly being punished purely for criticizing the actions of the security forces that day and to set an example to others who dare testify about crimes committed by security forces. These ludicrous charges must be dropped immediately.”
The witnesses are being charged with protesting without authorization and disturbing public order under Egypt’s repressive protest law. If convicted they could face up to five years in prison and a fine of 50,000 EGP, (US$ 6,552).
The prosecution is also investigating charges that evidence was hidden by the commander in charge and a conscript officer on the day the march took place. The police officer from the Central Security Forces who shot Shaimaa al-Sabbagh has been charged with “beating, injury or giving harmful substances that led to death”.
Despite the deaths of hundreds of protesters at the hands of the security forces since July 2013, most investigations have been half-hearted at best and have failed to deliver accountability and justice. While all 17 witnesses have been referred to trial the three officers accused in the case have yet to be arrested or given a trial date.
Scapegoating witnesses in such a manner is part of an attempt by the authorities to cover up yet another incident of excessive and lethal use of force by the security forces to crush peaceful protests in Egypt
“Scapegoating witnesses in such a manner is part of an attempt by the authorities to cover up yet another incident of excessive and lethal use of force by the security forces to crush peaceful protests in Egypt,” said Said Boumedouha.
Lawyers in the case have also told Amnesty International that they have not been allowed to make copies of the case file and as such are unable to properly prepare their defence - a further signal that this trial is blatantly unfair.
Azza Soliman is among three of the witnesses who are being charged but were not even involved in the march that day. She had been sitting in a café and stepped outside to take a look as those marching approached.
“It was only minutes before the security forces started to fire tear gas and shotguns towards the march,” said Azza Soliman, who described how she ran to hide in a side street where she witnessed Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s killing by the security forces.
She came forward to offer her eyewitness testimony but instead was charged with taking part in an unauthorized protest. Under Egypt’s draconian Protest Law participating in a demonstration without prior authorization is a crime.
Maher Shaker, a doctor, had been sitting in the Zahret el-Bustan café a few streets away from the march when Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was brought in, wounded.
The man who carried her into the café, a bystander, Mostafa Abdel Aal told Amnesty International that he had seen the head of the security forces pointing towards the place where Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was standing and ordering his forces to shoot in that direction:
“I told the security forces to call the ambulance more than once…I then picked up Shaimaa and tried to search for cars or an ambulance to take her. All the streets were closed… Dr Maher Shaker was sitting in one of the cafés and mentioned he could provide first aid as he is a doctor.”
Maher Shaker said: “I was far away from the place where the incident occurred…they brought her to the café where I was sitting. I just tried to help because I am a doctor.”
Shortly afterwards both men were arrested along with three others. They were held for one night and referred to the prosecutor for questioning the next day. Both testified against the security forces and were later charged.
Another witness arrived at the Prosecutor’s Office after being summoned to testify as an eyewitness about Shaimaa al-Sabbagh’s death, only to find that the security forces had accused him of shooting her himself. The murder accusation was dismissed due to insufficient evidence and instead he was charged with protesting without authorization and disturbing public order.
Ali Suleiman a lawyer for the Socialist Popular Alliance Party which had organized the march said:
“The head of the prosecution called us personally and said I would like eyewitnesses to the incident. After the [witnesses] gave their testimonies, he charged them with protesting [without authorization and disturbing public order].”
Another party member accused in the case, Taha Tantawi, said he was shocked to find himself on the list of defendants as he considered providing eyewitness testimony his “duty”.
“It is appalling that the authorities are arbitrarily arresting and prosecuting witnesses on a whim, instead of offering them protection in clear violation of international law,” said Said Boumedouha.
“When will the Egyptian authorities learn that taking part in a peaceful march is not a crime?”