Rare Acquittal Renews Protest Law Debate

The dozens of lawyers crammed in a small room at Abdin’s Courthouse on May 23 were unable to contain their shock when the judge ruled to acquit all seventeen defendants charged with holding an illegal protest on January 24. The defendants, accused of breaking Egypt’s restrictive protest law, were facing up to five years in prison, and a fine of up to 100,000 Egyptian pounds, if convicted. The surprise ruling has some hoping it will reinvigorate the case against the Protest Law itself.

Unlike most trials that have dragged on for months, this trial, in which the majority of the defendants were members of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party (PSAP), the procedures lasted only two sessions. The case had begun on April 4 and the defense lawyers yet to present their arguments to the judge. However as soon as the court was in session, Judge Amir Assem ruled to acquit all seventeen defendants. The evidence presented by prosecutors, he said, “was vague and confusing.” The lawyers chanted, “Long live justice,” and the defendants and their relatives and friends hugged each other in joy.

In his ruling, the judge said, “The court is convinced that, while the defendants were trying to mark the anniversary of the January 25, 2011 Revolution, they gathered with others in a march that tried to head towards Tahrir Square to place flowers on the memorial built there for martyrs of the Revolution. To reach the Square, they marched on the sidewalk in Talaat Harb Street, and a number of them went to seek permission (from police) to place the flowers. However, their request was rejected, and the police forces secured the street and fired tear gas to disperse them.” As police dispersed the protest, PSAP member Shaimaa al-Sabbagh was killed.

The death of Sabbagh, the 30-year-old mother of a five year old child, and the famous photos of her last moments, as she was carried by a colleague covered in blood, loomed over the trial. Her suspected killer, however, an anti-riot police officer, is being tried separately in front of a criminal court. He has been charged with “beating that led to death,” after the prosecution’s investigation concluded that Sabbagh’s wounds were the result of “light birdshot.”

The Interior Ministry initially insisted that the anti-riot unit at Talaat Harb Square used only tear gas to disperse the small protest, vehemently denying police were armed with birdshot. An Interior Ministry statement issued right after the accident claimed “unknown elements infiltrated the march” and shot Sabbagh. Police even went so far as to allege that PSAP Deputy President, Zohdi Shami, 68, could be behind Sabbagh’s death because he was seen in a photo walking behind her with his hand in his jacket pocket. He could have been carrying a gun, they alleged. Police raided Shami’s home to seize the jacket, and forensic experts proved there were no traces of birdshot, or any shots fired from his pocket. Shami was one of the seventeen found not guilty on Saturday.

 After imposing a media gag related to the accident, the Prosecutor General filed charges in mid-March against an anti-riot police officer, whose name was withheld for security purposes. The police officer was seen masked in a video pointing his a rifle in Sabbagh’s direction before she was hit.  The case against the officer started on May 10, and the he has been ordered detained during the trial. The third session was adjourned to June 7.

Ali Soliman, a PSAP lawyer, said he hoped Saturday’s ruling, confirming the peaceful nature of the protest, would allow them to alter the charge against the suspected Sabbagh killer from “beating that led to death,” to “premeditated murder.” He added that the case in which the seventeen PSAP leaders were involved “is not at all different from many other cases in which dozens were jailed for holding peaceful demonstrations since the Protest Law was passed. However, in this case, the evidence was so strong that it could not be ignored by the court.” He confirmed that the Prosecutor General’s office maintains the right to appeal the verdict and seek a retrial. On Tuesday, May 26, the Cairo’s Appeals Court in fact announced that the Prosecutor appealed the verdict, and the first session of the retrial has been set for June 13. 

In his ruling, the judge, however, noted that the seventeen defendants did not disrupt public order, and were only seeking to peacefully express their view and demands. He said, “It was proven to the court by eyewitnesses that the defendants were only seeking to celebrate the anniversary of the Revolution. What they have done could not be interpreted as a political protest that could be criminalized. Their gathering was not different from similar gatherings that takes place during a victory parade, or those that coincide with weddings.” The court added that the case “did not include any evidence to prove that defendants attacked police, ordinary citizens, or public property,” contrary to initial claims by the Interior Ministry statement.

Medhat Zahed, PSAP deputy president, said he was satisfied with the ruling, and hoped it would renew the debate over the need to amend the Protest Law. “It makes no sense at all that ousted President (Hosni) Mubarak and his two sons get a three-year jail terms for stealing 125 million Egyptian pounds to add luxuries to the presidential palaces, while our young men and women go to prison for up to five years for simply holding a peaceful protest. These are the same young people who revolted against Mubarak, and later against (former President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed) Morsi.”

 Eight political parties announced on the same day a petition calling on the Supreme Constitutional Court judges to set an immediate date to look into a case filed by two lawyers questioning the constitutionality of the Protest Law. The parties include PSAP, along with Dostour, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Karama, Popular Trend, Al-Adl, Egypt Freedom, and the Bread and Freedom Party.

Khaled Ali, a former leftist presidential candidate, and Tarek al-Awadi, won a case in the Administrative Court mid-June last year allowing them to challenge the unpopular law. Although the Supreme Constitutional Court announced on July 31 that it asked a body of judicial experts in the Court to prepare an initial report before looking into the case, a date has yet to be set. Ali and Awadi argue that the Protest Law violates the Constitution which guarantees the right to peaceful assembly after notifying security. Instead, the law states that those who wish to hold a peaceful protest should seek permission from the police a week in advance. They also argue that harsh imprisonment penalties of up to five years do not match the extent of ‘violations’ committed, considering the peaceful nature of the protests.

 Meanwhile, Zahed has renewed his appeal to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to fulfill several earlier promises. The latest was made in a televised address on February 22, when Sisi said he would look into the release of dozens of young men and women who have been in prison for over a year, following trials in which they were convicted on charges of violating the Protest Law. “Perhaps the first anniversary of Sisi’s becoming a president could be a good occasion to issue a pardon,” he said.

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Shaimaa al-Sabbagh Shaimaa al-Sabbagh (L) along with other members of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, taking part in the protest over which the seventeen defendants were charged. (Aswat Masriya)