Originally published on October 27, 2014, at NationofChange.org
An Egyptian court sentenced 23 young activists to three years in prison for protesting without a government permit on Sunday. Following the political turbulence of the Arab Spring and the downfall of President Morsi, Egypt has been aggressively prosecuting anyone caught practicing free speech or peaceful assembly in an attempt to silence dissent. Although the U.S. State Department has publicly condemned the court’s decision, President Obama continues to fund the new Egyptian government and its military.
On June 21, activists marched towards the presidential palace in Cairo protesting against Egypt’s draconian anti-protest law and the repeated incarceration of political blogger, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, along with others. As they marched to the palace, the activists were attacked by several groups of men wearing civilian clothes. As security forces dispersed the crowd, they arrested 24 young activists including a child named Islam Tawfik Mohamed Hassan who faces trial in a juvenile court according to Amnesty International.
While buying water from a kiosk, Yara Sallam and her cousin were arrested along with the protesters. According to witnesses, Sallam and her cousin had not been participating in the demonstration. The following day, security forces released Sallam’s cousin, but kept Sallam in custody after discovering her occupation as a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. She has been convicted along with the protesters and sentenced to three years in prison. Amnesty International considers Sallam a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately.
“This appears to be yet another show-trial based on scant and dubious evidence that is intended to be a clear warning to anyone who defies Egypt’s protest law,” stated Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program.
On November 23, 2013, acting President Adly Mansour signed a law prohibiting public assemblies without prior authorization. Under Egypt’s Law Regulating the Right to Public Gathering Processions and Peaceful Protests, protesters must submit their plans to the government and receive permission to exercise free speech and peaceful assembly.
“The ruling is political, it has no legal grounding,” asserted Ahmed Ezzat, one of the defense lawyers.
In June, three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to between seven and ten years in prison on trumped up charges. Accused of smearing Egypt’s reputation and helping a terrorist organization, former BBC correspondent Peter Greste and ex-CNN journalist Mohamed Fahmy were sentenced to seven years each, while local producer Baher Mohamed received a sentence of ten years in prison. Four students and activists who have no connection to Al Jazeera and do not understand why they have been indicted in the case were sentenced to seven years. The judge also handed down ten-year sentences to Dutch journalist Rena Netjes and British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane who were tried in absentia.
Evidence against the journalists included videos of a trotting horse by Sky News Arabia, a Somalia documentary from the BBC, and excerpts of a speech by a Kenyan government official. Secretary of State John Kerry became especially embarrassed since the harsh sentences were handed down just a day after the U.S. government restored military and economic aid to Egypt.
Federal law required the U.S. to suspend non-humanitarian aid to countries where a military coup has toppled a democratically elected government. But language in Sec. 7041(a) of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 made Egypt exempt from this legislation only if Egyptian leadership agreed to advance democratization within their government.
After army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year, Egyptian security forces began targeting Islamists demanding the reinstatement of Morsi. Security forces killed hundreds of Islamist demonstrators at two Cairo protest camps and arrested thousands more before turning against liberal and secular activists. Since his inauguration, President Sisi has vowed to revive the economy and combat an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai but has neglected the rights of his own people.
Besides the three-year sentences that the court handed down to the 23 activists, they also received fines of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately $1,400) each and will be kept under police surveillance for another three years after serving their prison sentences.
“The case provides the latest proof of the Egyptian authorities’ determination to quash peaceful protest and stifle all forms of dissent.” Luther added, “No one should be detained for peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression and assembly.”