Egypt: Opposition activists in the ‘defendants’ cage’ amid ongoing crackdown

Amnesty’s Egypt Researcher Diana Eltahawy blogs from Cairo

Today I attended the first hearing in the trial of 12 people, including three leading activists, at a Dar Al Qadaa Al-Ali court. They are accused of attacking and burning the campaign headquarters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq on 28 May 2012.

Amnesty International fears that the activists are being pursued in a politically motivated case, which comes amid the Egyptian authorities’ crackdown on freedom of expression and dissent.

During the hearing attended by a number of human rights lawyers, opposition activists, international observers from the EU and other diplomatic representatives, supporters and friends of the accused, the five defendants who appeared in court vehemently denied all charges. The judge postponed the case to 3 September responding to the defence lawyers’ request for access to the entire case file, and calling in witnesses.

Among the defendants present today were prominent opposition activists.

Two of the activists, siblings Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mona Seif, are known for their ardent opposition to Ahmed Shafiq. They are also well-known critics of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), President Mohamed Morsi, the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

Both have been harassed and/or arrested previously for voicing dissent and participating in demonstrations.

Alaa Abdel Fattah was arrested 13 November 2011 on charges of participating in violence during protests in front of the Maspero television building in Cairo, which led to the deaths of 27 people. He was detained until his release pending investigation in December that year. Amnesty International believes that Alaa Abd El Fattah was targeted by the SCAF because of his leading role as a blogger and activist. No convincing evidence was ever presented to substantiate the charges against him, which were finally dropped in April 2012.

More recently, he was summoned for questioning by the public prosecution in relation to protests in front of the headquarters of the MB in Cairo on 22 March.

Today, he told the court that he did not participate in the protest in front of Shafiq’s headquarters, and heard the news about the attack after it happened.

Mona Seif, one of the founders of Egypt’s “No to Military Trials” movement – and a nominee for this year’s Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders – was arrested and beaten by members of the armed forces during a sit-in in front of the Egyptian Cabinet offices in December 2011. In court, she explained that she was in downtown Cairo during the attack on Shafiq’s headquarters, based in a different neighbourhood of Greater Cairo.

Other defendants are also known for their opposition to the current government. Ahmed Abdallah and his 6 April Youth Movement initially supported Mohamed Morsi’s candidacy during the second round of Egypt’s presidential elections last year. But they grew increasingly critical of his policies and in November 2012 escalated their vocal opposition him, the FJP and the MB.

A turning point was the killing of Gaber Salah Gaber, a 17-year-old member of the movement, during protests in front of the Ministry of Interior on 20 November 2012- the first killing of an opposition protester during Morsi’s rule.

Two days later President Morsi issued a Constitutional Declaration granting himself unrestrained powers. Since then, members of the 6 April Movement have participated regularly in demonstrations against the President and the Ministry of Interior, and several of its members were arrested during demonstrations.

In recent months, Ahmed Abdallah has continued to actively denounce ongoing human rights abuses and in mobilizing public support. He told Amnesty International, and the court, that he was not present in front of Shafiq’s headquarters at the time of the attack.

Another defendant, Bahaa Abdelazim Bastawissi, a founding member of Democratic Front Party from Damanhour, was also in court today. He was arrested a number of times during Mubarak’s rule, including on 6 April 2008 for participating in protests.

Today, he denied the charges against him, stating that he was attempting to stop a fight, apparently in the vicinity of the attack. After being arrested on 28 May 2012, he was detained until 18 June, before being released pending investigations. He told Amnesty International that he was stripped and beaten by members of the security forces in the last days of his detention in Damanhour.

On 7 March this year, the North Giza Prosecution referred the activists and nine others to trial on charges of arson, damage to property, theft, and the use of violence in relation to the attack on the headquarters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq on 28 May 2012. To substantiate its claims, the prosecution relied heavily on the alleged eyewitness testimony of seven people who included the police head of investigations.

This case against the activists comes amid an alarming escalation of politically motivated cases, judicial harassment and arrests targeting opposition activists, journalists, bloggers, protesters and others by the Egyptian authorities.

This crackdown sends the message that dissent and opposition continue to carry a heavy price under Egypt’s first democratically elected President since the “25 January Revolution”, in a frightening reminder that the current government is mimicking its predecessors – whether the SCAF or the fallen President Hosni Mubarak.

Read more about this case and others More face charges in Egypt’s escalating free speech and dissent crackdown