Each day Lobna Youssef Mohamed leaves home, hoping she will get to wave at her daughter through a small window. But even if she does get a glimpse, she can barely discern her 15-year-old.
Mohamed is allowed to enter the detention center where her daughter is incarcerated every other week. Her visits last about 30 minutes.
Mowada Mostafa is one of 21 girls and women arrested on October 31 in Alexandria. Their trial, which prompted public outcry from human rights groups, politicians and activists across the political spectrum, has moved unusually quickly — the verdict was issued on November 27, and the appeal is scheduled to take place on December 7.
The defendants were convicted on misdemeanor charges related to acts of violence and vandalism committed during a march on October 31. Those over 18 were sentenced to 11 years imprisonment, while the minors were sentenced to detention in a juvenile facility until they reach adulthood.
Some of the defendants say they did not participate in the march organized by the 7 am movement and were merely bystanders, a few say they were active participants in the demonstration, and others say that they came upon the march by chance and joined by standing with the protesters.
According to the organizers of the march, about 700 protesters — male and female — gathered in the Roshdy neighborhood of Alexandria that morning in what was to be the first public action of the 7 am movement.
Asmaa Mohamed Ali, a 7 am spokesperson, describes the group as a youth and student movement that is not affiliated with any political faction, though many view 7 am as being associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Their main demands are the end of military rule and freedom for political prisoners, including several students.
Ayman Dabi, a lawyer and the uncle of convicted 15-year-old Khadiga Bahaa Eddin Mohamed, says that the protesters were marching down Syria Street when unidentified assailants threw glass bottles at them from a building near the intersection with the Corniche. Some protesters retaliated by throwing rocks, although Dabi asserts that witness testimony indicated that it was men exchanging projectiles, and not women. Shortly after, police disbanded the protest and arrested the 21 females and one male, who was released later that day.
Notably, the march occurred three weeks before the Cabinet approved the controversial new Protest Law, under which the October 31 protest would have been illegal from the start.
Ali claims the jailed girls and women are sympathetic to the 7 am movement, even if they are not actively involved. Some, but not all, of the defendants’ families identify with the Muslim Brotherhood, although all of the girls and women face charges of belonging to the banned group.
Mohamed says her daughter was arrested with biscuits and books, not weapons: “What are you punishing her for? On the basis of what? You didn’t find her with a stone but with her schoolbag … so on what basis have you taken her?”
Relatives of at least two defendants cite medical conditions as evidence that their loved ones were not likely participants in the march. Lawyers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which is providing legal and media support for the defendants, say they have corroborated some of the accounts of the detained bystanders. For example, a mother with a heart condition was walking with her daughter near the march, and both were arrested.
Proceedings marked by little concrete evidence, contradictory testimonies and a swift and harsh verdict have left both families and their advocates confused. Defense and human rights lawyers say they have little doubt about the political motivations behind the proceedings, which come amid a nationwide crackdown on opposition activists and supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.
“From day one, everything was extraordinary,” Dabi says. “Nothing went as a normal case; it went as a political case, and that’s a big problem.”
Conflicting testimonies, unexpected verdict
The families of the detainees say they are in a state of disbelief.
“I never thought something like this could happen in Egypt, that a soldier or policeman could hit a girl. It’s the last thing we thought could happen,” says Mohamed.
She and Hoda Abdel Rahman say their 15-year-old daughters were with a friend and walking to a private lesson in the area when they saw the march. The girls tried to run when police intervened, but Abdel Rahman’s daughter Salma Reda had an asthma attack. As the two other girls tried to help their friend, Abdel Rahman says, they were attacked by the police.
In Mohamed’s home, the mothers talk about how their girls are good, recite the Quran from memory and how other inmates have started praying with them. Although they say the guards at the juvenile center treat them well, they worry about possible abuse from other prisoners.
Salma’s younger brother Moaz Reda, ten, says they laughed together when he visited, but at home, he cries when he thinks of her in a cell.
Mowada’s brother Youssef, also ten, asks each day if she’s coming home. Until his big sister is freed, he refuses to cut his hair.
Asked why she is absent, he says, “Because she is defending the country. They take everyone who is trying to defend the country … everyone they meet, they arrest.”
During the trial, the families and lawyers say they were confident the girls would be released. The prosecution relied on written statements from employees on Syria Street who said some buildings sustained minor damage from rock-throwing, according to defense attorneys. Banners and stickers were among the evidence presented in court.
The defense team — which includes more than 20 lawyers of different backgrounds, many working on the case pro bono — says the alleged victims of assault gave different statements to the police and the prosecution.
“At the police station a doorman said, ‘They attacked and beat me because I support the roadmap [the post-Morsi government’s plan for the transitional period]’ … but the prosecution has different investigating methods, and actually asked how the protesters knew he support the roadmap,” says lawyer Shaimaa Ibrahim, who is affiliated with the Shehab Human Rights Center (her husband, the center’s director, was arrested on July 3 at the start of the crackdown on the Brotherhood).
Mohamed says she left the courtroom expecting that in an hour or two she would be told to come and take her daughter home.
“Even in the court, everything that was happening, the way they were dealing with them, we thought the girls would be found innocent. But then it was a harsh sentence. So now I no longer believe anyone,” says Mohamed.
Public opinion and a speedy trial
The misinformation and confusion circulating both in the media and among the different parties involved in the case is not surprising, given the circumstances and speed with which it was brought to trial. Defense lawyers did not receive the initial November 27 court verdict in writing until three days before they were due to argue an appeal on Saturday.
The Sidi Gaber Misdemeanor Court sentenced the 14 adult defendants to 11 years and one month imprisonment to be followed by four years of supervised release, during which they must spend their nights in detention.
The seven minors were tried separately in juvenile court — on the same charges and on the basis of the same evidence — and sentenced to a detention facility until they reach adulthood, although lawyers were uncertain of whether that meant 18 or 21 years old as they had not yet had an opportunity to examine the sentence.
Hamdy Khalaf, an EIPR lawyer who is on the defense team, says the written ruling stipulates that the detention of the minors will be reviewed every two months and will end when they turn 18.
The conviction is based on misdemeanor charges of vandalism, unlawful assembly, possession of weapons used for assault — in this case, allegedly stones — and a charge of thuggery which was declared unconstitutional during the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, but reinstated shortly after his ouster by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
In addition to more than a decade of imprisonment, the defendants face another trial in a criminal court for joining a banned group, according to Ahmed Chazli, the head of EIPR’s Alexandria office.
Most of the lawyers and families agree that the case was used to send a deliberate message — not just to the Brotherhood and Islamists or to female protesters, but to anyone who might consider opposing the current government.
Several relatives of the detainees relate that young men told police to arrest them as well on the day of the march, but authorities made it clear they were only interested in apprehending females.
Dabi points to the increased presence of women in Muslim Brotherhood protests, and suggests they were targeted so that “those who are against the coup are scared and no one will think about going down to the streets.”
He describes whoever came up with this plan “to make an example of the females” as a “genius mastermind,” but adds that it has backfired.
“Women are still in the street,” he says, “as well as others who believed in the government before.”
“There is no justice anymore,” Mohamed says. “People accused of committing crimes or killing protesters have been sentenced to a maximum of seven years, or mostly acquitted, and then 19-year-olds are sentenced to 11 years, for doing nothing.”
She adds, “Even those who were with the coup can see that this is not justice.”
Criticism of the arrests and severe sentences has come from human rights groups, activists and commentators from across the political spectrum, both at home and abroad.
As Chazli of EIPR puts it, “The Brotherhood could have staged demonstrations for another ten years and it would not have got them the sympathy that this case has.”
Lawyers involved in the case suggest that the broad and harsh criticism is the reason behind the speed of the legal proceedings.
But, ironically, this has only added to the injustice and confusion, lawyers say. Khalaf explains that a judge has up to 30 days to stamp a verdict, after which lawyers can see it. Until Wednesday, when they received the ruling, defense attorneys were building their appeal with different understandings of the sentence.
With the December 7 appeal a day away, Mohamed has little hope, saying, “I have started to expect the worst, not the best, scenario.”
News of a presidential pardon came soon after last week’s verdict, something that a number of the defendants’ families describe as “rumors.”
“It is incredibly rare for there to be talk of a presidential pardon at this stage, as it is not even possible until all legal mechanisms including the appeal are completed,” Khalaf says. It is a move that can be understood as a response to public criticism.
Chazli agrees, suggesting that the extent of the reaction was unexpected and authorities are now seeking to calm public anger.
In addition, there are the student demonstrations. Along with the recent killing of two students at Cairo and Al-Azhar universities, the case of the detained Alexandria women has galvanized university activism. Chazli describes it as a “crisis for the state.”
As evidence that the acceleration of the case relates to political concerns, Chazli and Khalaf point to another case that received little public attention. A group of boys arrested on July 3 — the day Morsi was ousted — have yet to face trial, and the prosecution has repeatedly extended their detention in 15-day increments.
Chazli suggests that in the case of the female protesters it was not an option for the authorities to wait, as public opinion has been escalating.
Some see a potential presidential pardon as an attempt to defuse the tension without giving the girls and women a fair trial.
“If they give them a pardon, it means they are guilty,” Mohamed says. “They have done nothing, but this sentence would be left hanging over them for all their lives.”
Some of the detainees would refuse a pardon in protest, Dabi says, but he predicts they would be released anyway. Accepting the reprieve “means they are guilty and pardoned by the president, which is humiliating and unacceptable.”
“They would always be ex-convicts,” he says, “which they would never accept.”
This article previously stated that the thuggery charge was removed after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak and redrafted with different terms. The piece has now been corrected to state that the law was declared unconstitutional prior to 2011 and was reinstated shortly after Mubarak’s ouster.