Egypt must overturn the convictions of three government critics sentenced to three years in jail for taking part in an “unauthorized” protest and immediately and unconditionally release them, Amnesty International said ahead of the prisoners’ appeal verdict.
Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, both activists with the 6 April Youth Movement, and well-known blogger Ahmed Douma are the first Egyptians to be given jail terms for defying the country’s repressive protest law, adopted in November last year.
The appeal court is expected to issue its final verdict on the activists’ three-year sentence on Monday.
“Jailing government critics on trumped-up charges or for breaching the repressive protest law is part of the authorities’ ploy to silence dissenting voices and tighten their grip on the country,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Amnesty International.
“All three activists are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. As such, they must be released immediately and unconditionally.”
The three activists were convicted of protesting without permission and “attacking” security forces outside Abdeen Misdemeanour Court on 30 November 2013. This is despite the fact that Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Douma were said to be inside the court at the time of the demonstration, while Adel was seen by witnesses trying to calm protestors outside the court.
Under Egypt’s new protest law, approved by interim president Adly Mansour in November 2013, protest organizers must submit their plans to the authorities three days in advance.
The law also grants the authorities sweeping powers, including the ability to cancel or reroute proposed demonstrations and to disperse unauthorized peaceful protests using unnecessary and excessive force, including firearms.
“It is a depressing sign that in Egypt, where in 2011 mass protests were the driving force for change, prominent activists are now being thrown behind bars merely for taking part in demonstrations,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
The three men said they were beaten by security officials during their appeal hearing last month, with Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma showing marks of beatings on their hands, legs and stomach. Mohamed Adel also told his lawyers he was beaten during his arrest and while being held in an unknown location for at least four days following his arrest.
“The Egyptian authorities must investigate the beatings alleged to have taken place inside the court and during arrest and detention and bring those responsible to justice,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The increasing reports of torture and other ill-treatment inside Egyptian police stations and prisons are deeply disturbing.”
Scuffles broke out outside the Abdeen court on 30 November when Ahmed Maher turned himself in to the Public Prosecutor, who had ordered his arrest for participating in an earlier unauthorized protest on 27 November outside the Shura Council, of which he was later cleared.
The security forces guarding the court fired tear gas at a group of Ahmed Maher’s supporters who were staging a protest.
According to eyewitnesses and lawyers, Ahmed Maher – accompanied by Ahmed Douma – was inside the court being questioned at the time of the clashes.
Lawyers also said there is no evidence that Mohamed Adel attacked officials. Videos screened during the trial instead show him helping a police officer who was suffering from the effects of tear gas.
Another police officer testified during the trial that Mohamed Adel had been trying to calm protesters and did not take part in the violence.
The three activists were convicted in December and sentenced to three years in prison with labour and a fine of LE50,000 (US$7,185).
The security forces arrested Ahmed Douma at his home on 2 December 2013. They have previously arrested him a number of times in connection with his opposition activism. Under Mohamed Morsi’s rule, he faced trial and prison for “insulting the president”.
Mohamed Adel was arrested on 18 December 2013 after the security forces raided the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR). Mohamed Adel told his lawyers that he was beaten during his arrest and while being held in an unknown location. Mohamed Adel’s whereabouts were not known until the day of the first trial on 22 December 2013.
Ahmed Maher is the founder of the 6 April Youth Movement. He was harassed several times by the authorities for opposing the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the SCAF, and Mohamed Morsi. For instance, he was held by security forces in May 2013 after returning from a trip abroad.
A new protest law restricting the right to public assembly, signed by interim president Adly Mansour on 24 November 2013, fails to meet international standards.
It gives the Interior Ministry wide discretionary powers over protests including the use of firearms against peaceful protesters. Protesters convicted of breaking the law can face up to five years in prison and fines of LE100,000 (USD$14,513).
Two days after the adoption of the new assembly law, security forces dispersed a peaceful protest outside the Shura council – arresting at least 38 people.
The protesters were calling on the committee drafting the constitution to remove the article allowing for the trial of civilians before military courts.
Some of the women arrested reported that they were harassed and beaten by security forces and then dropped on the Cairo Upper Egypt highway after midnight.
The authorities charged 26 of the protesters, including activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Abdel Rahman, of participating in an unauthorized protest. Their trial is to continue on 6 April.
Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Abdel Rahman were held in poor detention conditions from their detention in November until their release on bail on 23 March 2014.
Thousands of protesters have been rounded up in Egypt since the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013. They have been held in poor detention conditions with lack of due process or access to doctors.
There are also confirmed reports of torture in police stations and prisons. Amnesty International has documented torture inside police station and prisons since 3 July and specifically around the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising when security forces arrested more than 1,000 people in one day.