Jared Malsin, the Guardian
An Egyptian court has sentenced a prominent pro-democracy activist to five years in prison for violating a law banning unauthorised protests in what rights groups describe as an ongoing clampdown on dissent.
Alaa Abd El Fattah – a software engineer, blogger and activist – was one of the public faces of the 2011 revolution that removed Hosni Mubarak from power.
The verdict came in a retrial of 25 defendants who had previously been sentenced to 15 years over a demonstration against military trials of civilians in 2013. The remaining defendants in the case received three-year sentences on Monday, while 15-year sentences were upheld for others tried in absentia.
Before the hearing, Abd El Fattah and other prisoners were brought into the courtroom but confined to a metal and glass cage, unable to speak to their families, other activists, and journalists.
As the judge read out the sentences, the courtroom at Tora prison in Cairo erupted in outrage. The activists’ supporters scrambled on to the wooden benches, raising their fists and chanting: “Down with military rule!”
As police attempted to clear the crowd from the room, one man put his head down on a wooden table and sobbed. Tears streamed down the faces of several defendants’ relatives as they filed toward the gate.
“It’s not unexpected, but it still takes your breath away,” said Ahdaf Soueif, Abd El Fattah’s aunt, as she left the courtroom. “It’s not an issue of flaws. It’s an issue of inventing it as they go along. What is surprising is why they even bother with any kind of skeletal resemblance to proper process,” said Soueif, a prominent novelist and political commentator.
Thousands of Egyptians have been detained in a crackdown on political opponents since Egypt’s military removed elected president Mohamed Morsi from power in July 2013. Those imprisoned include many of Morsi’s supporters, but also activists like Abd El Fattah who also opposed Morsi.
The trial centres on a brief rally held on 26 November 2013. During the demonstration, protesters assembled in Cairo across the street from the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, calling on a constitution-drafting committee to ban the trial of civilians in military courts, a practice that surged under military rule following the 2011 uprising. Police used teargas and water cannons to disperse the protesters, including Abd El Fattah, who ran south along Cairo’s Qasr al-Aini Street.
Two days after the demonstration, police raided Abd El Fattah’s home, assaulting both him and his wife, Manal, he said. Prosecutors later levelled a range of charges against him and 24 others, including violating a law introduced in 2013 that criminalised unsanctioned street protests.
An appeal against Monday’s verdict is expected to be lodged in the court of cassation, Egypt’s highest appeals court. Abd El Fattah is carrying out a partial hunger strike, consuming only juice and other fluids, according to Soueif.
The scion of a dissident family, Abd El Fattah emerged as a symbol of Egypt’s anti-authoritarian protest movement after he was detained for 45 days in 2006 following his arrest during a protest in support of the judicial independence movement. After moving to South Africa in 2008 he and his wife, Manal, returned to Egypt to join the 2011 uprising against Mubarak.
He was jailed again in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, missing the birth of his son. In 2013, under Islamist president Morsi, he faced charges that activists said were intended to silence dissent.
On Sunday Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, admitted in a televised speech that “some innocent youth may have been wrongfully imprisoned in the midst of events that unfolded in Egypt”.
According to a statement from the president’s office, Sisi “asked that a list of such youth be prepared with the intent that the first group of these youth be released shortly in accordance with the law”.
Sisi, a former armed forces chief, led the military’s removal of Morsi following a wave of mass protests. In the subsequent months, the military-backed government that supplanted Morsi carried out the deadliest political crackdown in Egypt’s recent history.
Earlier on Monday, the same court adjourned until 8 March the trial of two journalists with Al Jazeera English. They are charged with spreading “false news” and aiding a terrorist organisation – a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed appeared at their trial in civilian clothes for the first time after they were bailed earlier in February. A third journalist, Peter Greste, was deported to his home country of Australia.