A leading figure in Egypt’s 2011 uprising, his lawyer and a blogger have been served lengthy prison sentences in a Cairo court, in a move that observers have branded a further blow to human rights.
An emergency court on Monday sentenced activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah to five years in prison on charges of “spreading false news”. Human rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer, formerly Abd El-Fattah’s counsel, and blogger Mohamed “Oxygen” Ibrahim were both sentenced to four years in detention on the same charges.
The sentences are awaiting ratification by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi but cannot be appealed against. Egyptian state media reported that the three were sentenced “on charges of joining a terrorist group”.
The trial represents the latest in a prolonged string of attacks on Egyptian civil society and human rights, often with particular aim at figures like Abd El-Fattah associated with the protests that overthrew former autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Human Rights Watch and Abd El-Fattah’s relatives said that “the trial was rife with … due process violations.” All three have been held in pre-trial detention for over two years, including long periods without knowing the charges against them, swept up in arrests targeting prominent civil society figures following a brief spell of anti-government protests. El-Baqer was arrested when he went to a police station in order to defend his client.
Passages of Abd El-Fattah’s book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated were written, and smuggled out, while he was held in Cairo’s Tora prison.
The three detainees represent a generation of Egyptian activists trapped in the country’s labyrinthine prison system with little end in sight. “He told me through the bars that he’s going to die in prison,” Abd El-Fattah’s mother, Laila Soueif, wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Times. Oxygen reportedly attempted suicide inside prison earlier this year.
“This is not a TV show, this is my family’s life [held] captive to Sisi’s prisons since 2013,” tweeted Mona Seif, Abd El-Fattah’s sister. “This is our future frozen indefinitely, or until a time this regime feels content with its vengeance.”
Defence lawyers were prevented from viewing case documents clarifying the charges against their clients without the presence of security officials, and hearings lasted just three sessions. Lawyers acting for the defence were not permitted to present arguments in support of their clients.
Oxygen was first arrested in 2018, and repeatedly hit with new charges before finishing his sentence or mandated pre-trial detention period, a process that rights observers call a “revolving door” prison system.
Abd El-Fattah has been detained repeatedly since 2013, largely for violating a law banning street protests. He was later subject to a lengthy parole that required him to spend 12 hours every day sleeping inside his local police station. He is currently held in a maximum security facility without access to reading materials as punishment.
In a rare statement, the German foreign ministry said the trial against El-Baqer shows “where the human rights situation in Egypt is heading”. Egypt’s foreign ministry hit back, calling the German statement “a blatant and unjustified interference in Egyptian internal affairs”.
The three defendants, Human Rights Watch added, were part of a group of civil society figures abruptly summoned to trial shortly before Egypt ended a national state of emergency in late October, in place for most of the past 40 years.
Observers had hoped that the lifting of the emergency law could provide a small step towards mitigating draconian laws governing protest, free expression and civil society imposed since President Sisi swept to power in a 2013 military coup. Yet the emergency law has been largely replaced by a sweeping anti-terrorism legislation used primarily to target peaceful dissidents.