3 January 2014

Egypt: Halt Crackdown On Vocal Critics in Politically Motivated Trial

press release

Three prominent activists are facing trial in an apparently politically motivated case based on unreliable witnesses and scant evidence, said Amnesty International ahead of a court verdict due this Sunday.

On 5 January a criminal court in Giza, Greater Cairo, is expected to deliver a verdict in a case against 12 people accused of attacking and setting fire to the campaign headquarters of former presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, on 28 May 2012. The defendants include three leading activists who have been critical of abuses committed by the security forces under successive Egyptian governments.

"The Egyptian authorities must not use Sunday's verdict to punish activists who oppose them. There are reasons to believe the trial is politically motivated. All three activists have denied they were present at the scene and evidence against them is questionable," said Said Boumedouha, Acting Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme.

"The proceedings appear to be part of an escalating government campaign to silence critics, including supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi and the affiliated Muslim Brotherhood, as well as secular activists.

"The authorities must not resort to judicial harassment to crush dissent. A conviction that is not based on independent, impartial and adequate investigations and reliable evidence would be unfair. It could also be perceived as aimed at preventing the three activists from carrying out their political and human rights work."

Two of the defendants, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mona Seif, who are brother and sister, are well known for criticizing human rights abuses committed by security forces and the army during the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and since. A third defendant, Ahmed Abdallah of the 6 April Youth Movement, has also spoken out against successive Egyptian governments. All three activists played prominent roles in the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. They also opposed the candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq, who is regarded by many to be a remnant of the Mubarak regime.

"The three activists have been thorns in the sides of successive governments for their relentless criticism of the security forces, and for that they were pursued by both the generals and Mohamed Morsi while they were in power," said Said Boumedouha.

"The mere fact they are back in the dock following Mohamed Morsi's removal is yet another ominous signal of the authorities' determination to stamp out dissent and deter people from across the political spectrum from speaking out."

In March the activists, along with nine others, were referred to trial on charges of arson, theft, damaging property, using violence and endangering "public safety" during an attack on the headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq in the run-up to the second round of presidential elections pitting him against Mohamed Morsi.

The prosecution relied heavily on alleged eyewitness testimony of the head of police investigations, casting doubt on its impartiality and credibility. The six other testimonies used to substantiate charges against the activists included people, many of whom have criminal records or are facing pending criminal investigations. As such, they are more susceptible to pressure and manipulation by the police and prosecuting authorities.

Only one prosecution witness appeared in court despite the defence's request to cross-examine the other alleged eyewitnesses. This witness testified that he had seen Alaa Abdel Fattah near the scene of the crime, but acknowledged he had not seen him holding any weapons or committing violence. He admitted not recognizing the other defendants.

Despite requests from the defence, no audiovisual or other material evidence linking the defendants to the crime was presented.

Several defence witnesses provided alibis for the accused, testifying that they were not present near the Shafiq headquarters at the time it was attacked.

"An alarming trend has emerged of flawed judicial proceedings and selective justice. Egyptian courts acquit members of the security forces charged with killing protesters while imposing heavy prison terms on peaceful protesters. If the public's trust in the independence and impartiality of Egyptian justice is to be restored, the court must judge this case on its merits, adhering to international fair trial standards, and not bow to political pressures ," said Said Boumedouha.

Alaa Abdel Fattah has been detained since 28 November 2013, charged with participating in an "unauthorized" protest in front of the Shura Council on 26 November. Amnesty International believes he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for his peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and assembly. His sister, Mona Seif, was arrested and beaten during that protest, but released hours later without charge. The remaining defendants are at liberty pending the verdict.

Additional information about the defendants present in court

Alaa Abdel Fattah is a well-known blogger and political activist who has been harassed by successive Egyptian governments.

During the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), he was arrested on 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 2011. 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.

During the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, he was summoned for questioning by the public prosecution in relation to protests in front of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo on 22 March.

In relation to the case of the burning of Ahmed Shafiq's headquarters, he told the court that he did not participate in the protest in front of the headquarters, and heard the news about the attack after it happened.

Mona Seif is one of the founders of Egypt's "No to Military Trials" movement and was a runner up in the 2013 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. She was arrested and beaten by members of the armed forces during a sit-in in front of the Egyptian Cabinet offices in December 2011.

She was arrested on 26 November 2013 along with dozens of others in front of the Shura Council during a protest calling for provisions allowing for the military trial of civilians to be excluded from the constitution. She remained in security forces' custody along with a group of other female protesters until she was dumped on a desert road at 1am on 27 November without charge.

In relation to the case of the burning of Ahmed Shafiq's headquarters, she explained that she was in a different area of Cairo at the time of the attack.

Ahmed Abdallah is a prominent member of the 6 April Youth Movement. The group played a key role in the "25 January Revolution" which led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak. Initially he supported Mohamed Morsi's candidacy during the second round of Egypt's presidential elections in 2012 against Ahmed Shafiq, but he and the movement grew increasingly critical of his policies. Ahmed Abdallah has continued to actively denounce ongoing human rights abuses. Following the ousting of Mohamed Morsi, he co-founded the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a group which documents and denounces human rights violations.

He told Amnesty International, and the court, that he was not present in front of Shafiq's headquarters at the time of the attack.

One of the founders of the 6 April Youth Movement and its former head, Ahmed Maher, was sentenced to three years imprisonment and heavy fines on 22 December along with another 6 April member, Mohamed Adel, and another activist, Ahmed Douma, on charges of participating in an "unauthorized" protest and "attacking" security forces on duty on 30 November. The charges relate to a protest by Ahmed Maher's supporters outside the Abdeen Misdemeanours Court building on 30 November, when the activist turned himself in to the Prosecution for questioning about an "unauthorized" protest three days earlier outside the Shura Council. The security forces clashed with protesters during the demonstration, but lawyers told Amnesty International that at the time of the clashes with security forces Ahmed Maher was being questioned by the Office of the Public Prosecutor inside the court and Ahmed Douma was inside the court as well. Amnesty International considers them prisoners of conscience detained solely for their peaceful political activism.

Background:

The human rights situation in Egypt has suffered a number of recent setbacks. On 24 November, the government adopted and immediately used a new repressive assembly law which essentially bans protests without Ministry of Interior approval, grants wide discretionary powers to security forces to forcibly disperse peaceful protests, and treats peaceful protesters like criminals. Those critical of the authorities' actions found themselves arrested, beaten, and judicially harassed. Most recently, on 2 January, a court in Alexandria sentenced seven activists to two years in prison and heavy fines for participating in an "unauthorized" protest late last year. Four activists are currently in detention. In another alarming incident, on 18 December, a group of armed security force personnel, reportedly numbering about 50, raided the headquarters of well known human rights NGO, the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, arresting, torturing and ill-treating six people, before releasing five without charge.

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