The detention on June 21 of Egyptian activist and human rights lawyer Yara Sallam, along with 22 other demonstrators, has reignited debate over the controversial protest law that was issued in Nov. 2013.
Sallam, in charge of the Transitional Justice Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was referred to court for protesting without prior permission from the Interior Ministry, vandalizing public property, terrorizing citizens and destabilizing security. The trial, scheduled for Sept. 13, may see Sallam and the other defendants face the same fate as others who have violated the protest law.
Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah speaks during a TV interview at his house in Cairo. (AFP)
Blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah - whose sister Sanaa was among the protesters arrested with Sallam - was sentenced to 15 years in jail. Ahmed Maher, cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement, was sentenced to three years. Revolutionary Socialists member Mahinour al-Masry was sentenced to two years. These sentences are seen by activists as part of the government’s attempt to stifle dissent, while the state holds firmly to its right to maintain law and order.
The EIPR says all the measures taken against Sallam and her fellow detainees are punitive rather than legal. “We believe that they were arrested and are now being tried for practicing their right to freedom of expression,” it said in a statement. “We are concerned that Sallam in particular was arrested because of her work in human rights since her cousin, who was arrested with her in the same protest, was released on the same day and faced no charges.”
The statement contested the legality of the procedures taken against the defendants, especially the court’s decision to keep them detained until the trial. “The lawyer demanded that the defendants be released but the judge denied their request, which we see as a punishment for them since there is nothing in the case that necessitates detaining them for more than three months.”
The EIPR questioned the validity of the charges. “The defendants are, for example, charged with attacking a police car at a time when they had already been arrested and no weapons were found with them to prove they engaged in any acts of vandalism or violence. Add to that that the only witnesses are police officers.”
The statement also accused the authorities of depriving the defendants of their basic rights, and of hindering any assistance they could get. “The defendants were not allowed to contact their families and lawyers when they were arrested and the venue of the court session was changed without notifying the lawyers. The lawyers also faced huge challenges as they tried to gain access to the case files and to information on the whereabouts of their clients.”
The statement concluded: “We believe that the way the case is being handled puts into question the fairness of the trial.” These sentiments were echoed by Amnesty International in the case of Masry: “There is absolutely no evidence” that she “was involved in violence against the security forces. Her case is just the latest in a series of examples of the Egyptian authorities’ systematic attempts to stifle dissent, including by using the repressive protest law enacted last November.”
Masry “is a prisoner of conscience, convicted and sentenced solely for protesting peacefully,” Amnesty said. “The protest law allows the Egyptian authorities to ban demonstrations at their discretion and gives security forces a free rein to use force, including firearms, against peaceful protesters - a blatant violation of international law. It sends a clear message that there is no space in Egypt today for activism that is not directly sanctioned by the state.”
Several opposition parties issued a joint statement against the protest law days before the arrest of Sallam and her fellow activists. “In the context of the repeated court sentences, that come out almost daily... the undersigned parties cannot but renew their firm condemnation of the infamous and unconstitutional protest law, especially when it targets peaceful demonstrators who were seeking to express their opinions freely, which is a basic right in a developing democracy.” The statement objected to the authorities treating peaceful protestors as they do armed or violent groups, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Support for the protest law
However, according to General Ahmed Gad Mansour, deputy interior minister and director of the Egyptian Police Academy: “Absolute freedom equals absolute chaos. There is a huge difference between protesting and practicing freedom in accordance with the law on one hand, and committing violations on the other hand. In fact, protest laws in many Western countries are much stricter than the one we have now in Egypt.”
Mahmoud Kubeish, professor of law and former dean of the School of Law at Cairo University, said. “We will never reach stability if people keep protesting without permits. Revoking the protest law is a crime and anyone who supports that is a party to incitement of chaos whether intentionally or unintentionally.”
Professor of international law Ayman Salama says the state has the right to take all necessary measures to maintain stability when national security is at risk, including passing laws in the absence of a parliament until one is elected.
“These laws could even violate the constitution or other existing laws, but become urgent at a certain time to preserve the existence of the state against a serious threat,” he said, referring to the Brotherhood, which “extracted itself from the national fabric and alienated all Egyptians.”
Salama slammed human rights groups and activists for objecting to the protest law while not reading its counterparts in other parts of the world. “In fact, international law does not recognize the right to protest, but only the right to peaceful assembly, which happens to be the means of protesting in other countries. The case is different in Egypt, where Molotov cocktails become the means of protesting.”
Lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali filed a lawsuit against the protest law, citing its violation of the constitutional right to peaceful protest. According to journalist Khaled Dawoud, the fact that the Administrative Court referred the case to the Supreme Constitutional Court means the argument against the law is valid, and gives newly-elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a way out.
“If the SCC finds the law unconstitutional, this will be a face-saving solution allowing Sisi to amend the law, while saying he respects the judiciary and did not simply bow to pressure from the opposition,” Dawoud said.