©Amnesty International

Egypt: End prosecution of rights defender for speaking out against sexual violence

The Egyptian authorities must immediately put an end to the shameful prosecution of Rasha Azab, a journalist and writer, who is on trial for her outspoken support for survivors of sexual violence, Amnesty International said today. 

Rasha Azab is on trial today on charges of “insult,” defamation” and “deliberately disturbing [the plaintiff]”, in relation to Tweets in which she expressed solidarity with survivors of sexual violence who published anonymous testimonies accusing film director Islam Azazi of committing sexual assaults and used curse words to express her dismay at the impunity he enjoys. If convicted, Azab could face up to two years in prison and/or a fine of up to EGP 50,000 (US$3200).  

“Rasha Azab is a well-known political activist and defender of women’s rights in Egypt. Prosecuting her for expressing solidarity with survivors of sexual violence sends a chilling message that women should suffer in silence and refrain from seeking justice and redress for rape and sexual violence,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director.

“The Egyptian authorities must immediately end the judicial harassment against Rasha Azab, and instead focus on addressing the epidemic of widespread sexual violence in Egypt. It is the state’s responsibility to prevent and investigate sexual and gender-based violence, yet Egypt has repeatedly opted to instead punish those who speak out against it.”

In December 2020, the feminist blog Daftar Hekayat published six anonymous testimonies accusing film director Islam Azazi of sexual violence, including one allegation of rape.  According to women’s rights activists, survivors chose to post on this blog anonymously given their lack of trust in the judicial system. 

Consistent with patterns of entrenched impunity for sexual violence, the Egyptian authorities have made no efforts to work with women’s rights organizations and activists to encourage the survivors who shared their testimonies to report the abuses to State bodies by guaranteeing their confidentiality and safety. 

Between December 2020 and November 2021, Rasha Azab posted several messages on her Twitter account expressing support for the women behind the allegations. On 13 January 2022, Islam Azazi submitted a complaint against Rasha Azab and film director Aida el-Kashef, who also expressed her support for the survivors on her Facebook account, accusing them of defamation. Days later, the prosecution decided to move the case against Rasha Azab to court.

The Egyptian authorities must immediately end the judicial harassment against Rasha Azab, and instead focus on addressing the epidemic of widespread sexual violence in Egypt.

Philip Luther, Amnesty International

Amnesty International’s research shows that Egyptian authorities routinely fail to adequately prevent and investigate widespread violence against women and girls in Egypt. Instead, the authorities have threatened, arbitrarily detained, and prosecuted survivors, witnesses, and activists who report or campaign against sexual violence.

In January 2022, the Court of Cassation upheld the conviction against Amal Fathy, a women’s rights defender who criticized the Egyptian authorities’ failure to protect women from sexual harassment, and sentenced her to a year in prison. 

In May 2020, social media influencer Menna Abdelaziz appeared in a video with a bruised face, saying that she had been raped, beaten and filmed without her consent. Within days, security forces arrested her, and she spent four months in arbitrary detention pending investigations into accusations of “inciting debauchery” and “violating family principles and values,” with prosecutors basing their case on statements by those Menna Abdelaziz accused of the attack. 

In 2020, authorities arbitrarily detained, and opened criminal investigations against four people who came forward as witnesses in connection to reported gang rape at the Fairmont Nile City Hotel in Cairo in 2014, over charges related to “morality” and “misuse of social media”, among others. At least two witnesses reported being pressured by security agents to change their testimonies, while held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance. 

“It is absurd and disgraceful that the Egyptian authorities continue to prosecute survivors, witnesses and activists standing up against the scourge of sexual violence in Egypt instead of providing justice and adequate reparation to survivors. The authorities must put an immediate end to such reprisals and remove the threat of prosecution, including by decriminalizing ‘insult’ and ‘defamation’, to signal to perpetrators that they can no longer intimidate women, girls and their supporters into silence and to break the chain of impunity for horrific sexual abuses,” said Philip Luther.  

Background

Under international human rights law, states are permitted to limit the right to freedom of expression including for the protection of the rights of others. However, limitations on the right to freedom of expression must be set forth in law in a precise manner, and must be necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim, as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Egypt is a party. In this regard, the Human Rights Committee has called on states to repeal laws criminalizing defamation and has sustained that imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty. Therefore, Amnesty International believes that laws aiming to protect the honour and reputation of third parties should always be treated as a matter of civil litigation, and laws criminalizing “defamation” and “insult” should be repealed.