The Cairo Criminal Court began investigating the murder of leftist activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, who was killed in January while commemorating the fourth anniversary of January 25 revolution, this week. In a Sunday hearing, the court adjourned the case to May 14 to decide on requests made by lawyers.
The case dates back to January 24, when Sabbagh, along with members of the Popular Socialist Alliance Party marched in Talaat Harb Square with the intention of placing flowers on the memorial of the revolution’s martyrs in Tahrir Square. Sabbagh was allegedly shot to death by a police officer, and 13 party members were arrested on charges of violating the contentious Protest Law, as they organized the rally without notifying authorities.
Sabbagh’s death drew wide local and international condemnation, as it was seen as a serious violation of the rights of peaceful assembly and expression. With the case is still in its early stages of litigation, lawyers and observers are worried that justice will not be served.
In Sunday’s hearing, the prosecution stated that Central Security officer lieutenant Yassin Salah Eddin had deliberately “harmed” the protesters, among whom was Sabbagh. In its speech, prosecution added that Salah Eddin shot Sabbagh with birdshot, “without the deliberate intention of killing, but the attack did lead to her death.”
Popular Socialist Alliance Party lawyer Ali Soliman explained to Mada Masr that there is no contradiction in the prosecution’s arguments, explaining, “The prosecution believes the police officer deliberately wanted to harm protesters, but not kill them”.
Soliman added that Sabbagh’s defense team requested that the charges against the police officer be changed from “beating to death” to “premeditated murder.”
If the prosecution’s charges are not changed by the court, Soliman expects a prison sentence ranging from three to seven years.
During the hearing, the court listened to two army officers with an expertise in weapons, who confirmed that the confiscated weapon used to kill Sabbagh is a birdshot gun. According to the testimonies of both officers, the range of the gun is 20 meters, and the pellet could be fatal if it is shot from 12 meters. The autopsy report confirmed that Sabbagh was shot from a distance estimated to be three to eight meters.
Since the officer was referred to trial for “beating to death,” he could be found innocent on procedural grounds, Yasmine Hossam Eddin, a lawyer following the investigations into Sabbagh’s death, told Mada Masr earlier.
Hossam Eddin explained, “This charge is inconsistent with the technical evidence and the autopsy report, which show that Sabbagh was killed by a direct gunshot wound and was not beaten.”
One decision by the court during the session specifically pleased Soliman.
“We were satisfied that the judge ordered the imprisonment of the police officer pending investigations, as this usually does not happen in other cases. We felt that the case is in its normal course of justice,” he explained.
None of the police officers accused of killing January 25 revolution protesters were ever incarcerated pending investigations, before they were all acquitted of murder charges.
While Soliman was reluctant to voice his concerns regarding the case, coordinator of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) Nada Nashat, who attended the hearings, was skeptical.
Nashat is following up on the case, where her manager and human rights activist Azza Soliman is among the defendants. The leading lawyer was having lunch with a group of her friends when she witnessed the death of Sabbagh at Café Riche downtown Cairo. When she posted her testimony on Facebook and attempted to testify in front of prosecution, Solaiman later found herself as part of a list of 13 other defendants accused of violating the Protest Law.
Nashat explained that the tension was palpable during the trial, with undercover police informants everywhere in the courtroom. Before the judge adjourned the trial, security stood in front of the podium, with Nashat pointing out that such heavy security measures were unnessecary. According to her, only journalists and lawyers were attending the trial.
“There was tension inside the courtroom, given the level of local and international pressure in the case. This was the only recent case where police was openly firing on peaceful protesters and killed Sabbagh blatantly,” she asserted.
On February, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report castigating Egypt’s police for killing Sabbagh. Testimonies from four eyewitnesses were included in the report, in addition to 18 photographs and three videos.
“The world is watching to see whether this case breaks the pattern of impunity for rights abuses that has marred Egyptian justice since the 2011 uprising,” Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, said.
One major concern for Nashat and others is the way how the prosecution divided the case. “The case is three in one,” she explained. The prosecution is dealing with the case of the Socialist Alliance Party protesters as one case, and Sabbagh’s murder as another. The third case is the trial of a group of police generals who allegedly concealed evidence implicating police, and are charged with obstructing the course of justice.
“This set-up is very tiring for the lawyers and pushes them to fight on so many fronts,” she explained.
As a result, lawyers asked that the case be assigned to an investigations judge to re-investigate the case. According to the list of requests that Mada Masr acquired from Nashat, the prosecution’s division of the case is “harmful for the defendants’ positions and the lawyers’ ability to defend them.”
Additionally, the prosecution gave up on its role as an investigative body, according to lawyers.
“The defendants went to testify in front of the prosecution, but the prosecution included them as defendants in the case without mentioning that they originally came forward as witnesses, in violation of the Criminal Procedural Law,” the lawyers said in the list of requests.
The case of Azza Soliman is an example. The only piece of evidence indicating that she was a witness is the group of Danish friends she was having lunch with at Café Riche. These individuals sent their documented testimonies to the court, and Soliman’s lawyers requested that the court officially consider their accounts into evidence. The lawyers await the court’s decision in the next hearing.
“Soliman witnessed Sabbagh’s death, and another doctor was sitting at a café when he saw her falling to the ground and tried to rescue her. Both of them are now defendants on charges of taking part in a protest they were never part of,” Nashat said.
One major concern for the lawyers is a possible court order in the upcoming hearings to imprison party members pending investigations in the case. “Everything is possible,” Nashat explained.
Socialist Alliance Party deputy head, Zohdi al-Shami, is among the defendants, and had faced accusations of killing Sabbagh himself. The way the prosecution designed the case and the charges brought forward is alarming for him.
“The prosecution depends on malicious investigations by police against party members, who are defending the right of a healthy and peaceful democratic practice. It is our right to remain worried and concerned,” he asserted.