The murder of political activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh seems to have had a ripple effect on the Egyptian state, an effect that might not always be seen, but the traces of which will never fade.
Despite the clamor associated with the case, which reached a peak in the past few days, the “butterfly effect” this case has unleashed cannot be stopped.
The recent confusion surrounding Sabbagh’s death started when the Prosecutor General referred the implicated policeman to Criminal Court on charges of “beating [Sabbagh] to death.” A statement was later made by the Forensic Authority spokesperson asserting that Sabbagh had died because she was “too thin to withstand birdshot,” and that it was impossible for the pellets that pierced her body to be fatal from the distance at which they were shot. The final straw was when an eyewitness to Sabbagh’s murder (who had not taken part in the protest) stepped forward, and was instead charged in the “protesting without permit” case, in which defendants (including Sabbagh herself) were accused of taking part in an illegal protest on the eve of January 25, 2015, the fourth anniversary of the 2011 revolution.
The latest person to have been caught in the “butterfly effect” was Hisham Abdel Hamid, the spokesperson for the Forensic Authority, who was dismissed from his position on Tuesday by the head of the Forensic Authority, Mohamed Ahmed Ali.
The statement dismissing the spokesperson also warned employees of the authority against releasing statements or technical information they have access to in the course of their work to media outlets.
Abdel Fattah’s statement that birdshot used by police is not fatal, and which attributed Sabbagh’s death to her weight, contradicts the report issued by the Forensic Authority before Sabbagh’s burial, which stated that she was shot from a distance ranging from three to eight meters, causing lacerations in the tissues of her heart and lungs that resulted in her death.
Commenting on the spokesperson’s statement, human rights lawyer Malek Adly said, “In short, the spokesperson intervened in a matter that doesn’t concern him, confusing the entire case and causing the Prosecutor General great embarrassment.”
“The Forensic Authority is not an investigative body – they’re a technical authority that issues official reports on the cause of death and their role ends there. They are not supposed to analyze the motives of the police officer or his capabilities, especially since the reports issued by the Forensic Authority and eyewitness accounts contradict the dismissed spokesperson’s comments,” Adly added.
Popular Socialist Alliance Party President Medhat al-Zahed told Mada Masr that the decision made by the head of the Forensic Authority confirms that the spokesperson’s statement came from a personal standpoint, “driven by pressures from outside the authority to influence the course of the investigation.”
Abdel Hamid refused Mada Masr’s request for comment on the issue, citing “health reasons.”
Zahed confirmed that the party assigned its legal committee to look into leveling charges against Abdel Hamid, and that while they “appreciate the decision to dismiss him,” they are still looking into the option of filing a lawsuit.
The Prosecutor General had issued a statement last week referring officer Yassin al-Imam, whose name was not mentioned in the statement, to the Criminal Court on charges of “beating to death.” So far, a date for the first court hearing has yet to be determined and the case files are not ready to be released, according to the lawyers.
Labeling the murder as a case of “beating to death” has angered a number of lawyers who have joined the case. Lawyer Yasmine Hossam al-Din described the charges to Mada Masr as a ploy to pave the way for the judge to issue a procedural acquittal, since statements of witnesses and the forensic report point toward “manslaughter” or “premeditated murder,” rather than beating to death or physical assault.
Referring the officer accused of murdering Sabbagh to the Criminal Court coincided with the referral of another officer and a major general to the Criminal Court for concealing evidence in a related case. Meanwhile, just a few days earlier, former Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim was dismissed from his post, a move that many linked to Sabbagh’s murder case, despite Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s statement that the two incidents had nothing to do with each other.
Those who claimed that Ibrahim’s dismissal was partially linked to the prosecution’s accusations against a police officer for killing Sabbagh seemed to ignore the former minister’s vow to refer any officer or soldier to court if they were proven to be implicated in the killing of the victim.
These analysts relied on the police’s fierce denial that one of their members was the culprit, especially following Major General Abdel Fattah Othman’s statement following the incident, in which he claimed that the police didn’t fire a single shot while dispersing the protest organized by the Popular Socialist Alliance Party. Othman had said that the protest was organized by the “Revolutionary Socialists,” and claimed that a third party was behind Sabbagh’s murder.
Meanwhile, former Interior Ministry Spokesperson Hany Abdel Latif said that Sabbagh’s death was “a great loss for the police, leaving a huge impact on the morale of policemen who are even sadder to learn of her death than other youth.”
Abdel Latif also announced that concerned security bodies were consolidating their efforts to apprehend Sabbagh’s murderers. Those who pointed out a connection between referring the officer to the Criminal Court and dismissing the Interior Minister considered the referral a result of an inner struggle that the media gag order had kept hidden.
The Prosecutor General had issued a media gag order for Sabbagh’s case, as well as the case concerning the murder of lawyer Karim Hamdy, both of which accuse police officers of murder and torture. So it might appear that in cases that hold special importance to the state, the Prosecutor General has rushed to issue gag orders, and, in the case of Sabbagh, has also filed a case against the victim and her colleagues for protesting without permits.
The resulting case of protesting without a warrant implicates Sabbagh’s colleagues, who also happen to be the witnesses to her murder, as well as eyewitness lawyer Azza Soliman, who had allegedly not taken part in the organized protest, but happened to be situated in a cafe adjacent to the spot where the incident took place.
In February, Sisi had said in a televised speech that he contacted the Prosecutor General to check on the progress of Sabbagh’s case, as well as the progress of the Air Defense Stadium case, which claimed the lives of 20 Zamalek Footbal Club fans. According to him, the prosecutor’s response was that “no one is going to stand by me when I’m being judged by God,” thus asserting his commitment to justice.
Soliman, who is currently not in the country, could not be reached for comment by Mada Masr. However, she wrote a Facebook post following the referral saying, “Today, after being turned from a witness to a defendant, I can say that I don’t regret stepping forward to testify. No matter what the police, prosecution or the judiciary do to scare us – sometimes successfully – I still have hope.”
Malek Adly told Mada Masr that listing Soliman in the case as a defendant was “a favor [from the prosecution] to the Interior Ministry.”
“This is simply her punishment for testifying against the Interior Ministry,” he added.
“The prosecution questioned the defendants in the [“protesting without a permit”] case, who are either members of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party’s central committee or political office. All of them confessed to being organizers or participants in the activity, and denied that it was a protest or a march. They asserted that they were carefully dealing with the ministry’s force, but they were still shocked by the attack,” Adly continued.
The referral order included Popular Socialist Alliance Part Deputy Head Zuhdi al-Shamy, leading leftist figure Ilhamy al-Merghani, as well as Talaat Fahmy, Abdel Hamid Nada, lawyer Azza Soliman, Nagwa Abbas, Taha Tantawi, Al-Sayyed Fawzy, Mohamed Saleh Fathy, Mostafa Abdel Aal, Maher Shaker, Hossam Nasr, Adel al-Meligy, Mohamed Saleh, Khaled Mostafa, Mohamed Ahmed Mahmoud and Ahmed Fathy Nasr. The list of defendants also included the victim Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, who was later taken off the list, due to expiration of criminal charges because of her death.
The case dates back to January 24, 2015 when a number of Popular Alliance Party members staged a vigil with flowers in Downtown’s Talaat Harb Square to commemorate the memory of the martyrs of the revolution, before the police forcefully dispersed the gathering.