Jailed in Egypt for daring to speak out

May 22, 2014

Eric Ruder reports on the Egyptian regime's use of the courts to crack down on dissent.

ON MAY 20, a court in Alexandria, Egypt, confirmed two-year jail sentences and $7,000 fines each for Mahienour el-Massry, a leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists (RS), and eight others--for the "crime" of holding a protest without permission from police.

The activists had gathered outside an Alexandria courthouse in December 2013 to draw attention to the retrial of police officers who murdered political blogger Khaled Said. Said's murder in June 2010 contributed to the growing anger that eventually boiled over into the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Mahienour was part of the initial group of activists who launched the campaign calling for a trial of police who tortured Said to death.

"The protest is against the police," said Khaled's mother. "How do you expect us to ask permission from the institution we are protesting against?"

Mahienour is one of the best-known women activists in Egypt. At the age of 26, she is a human rights lawyer and widely respected for her fearless opposition to police abuse and tyranny. She also faces charges for "storming" a police station in Alexandria while Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was president. In truth, she was there to serve as the lawyer for detained activists when authorities charged her as well.

Mahienour el-Massry
Mahienour el-Massry

The May 20 trial of the activists was a travesty. When the defense asked the original judge to recuse himself, the judge agreed. Typically in such instances, the case is then postponed and rescheduled for another day. Instead, Mahienour was transferred to a new judge in the same building, and the hearing went forward. The new judge issued his ruling without even considering any evidence provided by the defense.

"We don't like jails, but we are not afraid of them," said Mahienour defiantly. "The state keeps imagining that with its laws, prisons and dogs it can protect itself. But even if you gather all of us in prison, the revolution will continue."

Meanwhile, all the police officers accused of murdering Alexandria protesters during the 2011 revolution that toppled hated dictator Hosni Mubarak have all been acquitted. The very same police chief who oversaw those massacres is back on the job and part of prosecuting revolutionary activists.

IN AN interview, Egyptian activist and journalist Mostafa Ali put the case in context:

There has a been a concerted crackdown by the state--not only on thousands of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, but also hundreds of secular activists opposed to both the rule of the Brotherhood and the current interim authorities. The court system has railroaded hundreds of people and sentenced them in an outrageous manner, on trumped-up charges, for crimes they didn't commit. They want to silence all kinds of dissent. There are thousands of people like Mahienour in Egypt.

As a perfect example of Ali's point, the day after the verdict against the nine Alexandria activists was upheld, Mubarak and his two sons were also convicted of looting $17 million in state funds. And their sentences? Three years for Mubarak, and four years for his sons.

Many in Egypt expect Mubarak will simply appeal the sentence, just as he successfully overturned the verdict against him for the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians killed by his security forces during the 2011 revolution. Mubarak currently faces a retrial on those charges. According to a McClatchy news report:

The role of Egypt's courts already are controversial. More than any other Egyptian institution, except perhaps the military, the courts have proven critical to attacking the democratic reforms that Mubarak's ouster was supposed to usher in. Justice for the masses has not been their hallmark.

For example, Mubarak's sentence for corruption is the same as the one handed down in December to activist Ahmed Maher, the former leader of the April 6 Youth Movement. Maher's crime? Calling for protests against government abuse. Maher is serving that sentence now.

Human rights organizations, including the Egyptian Network for Human Rights Information and the Egyptian Initiative for Individual Rights, spoke out against the sentence for Mahienour and the other activists.

Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi also issued a statement in support of Mahienour. "The anti-protest law is unconstitutional," he tweeted. "Mahienour and all those who are convicted based on this law must be released." Sabahi is campaigning for the repeal of the law and for the release of the thousands of political prisoners currently held in Egyptian jails.

Union workers as far away as Sao Paolo, Brazil, have also come out in defense of Mahienour and the rest of the other activists.

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