The international human rights group Amnesty International issued an action alert on Monday advocating for the 17 eyewitnesses to the fatal shooting of activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh. They will be retried this month for violating the protest law.
Sabbagh was killed by a police officer during the dispersal of a peaceful protest organized by the Popular Socialist Alliance Party on January 24, 2015. The demonstrators had gathered at Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo, and were planning to carry flowers to Tahrir Square in commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the January 25 uprising when riot police began firing into the crowd.
The defendants already stood trial on charges of illegally protesting and disturbing the public order, but were acquitted on May 23. The prosecutor general appealed that ruling three days later.
The Qasr al-Nil Appeals Court has scheduled the first hearing in the retrial for October 24. The defendants face up to five years in jail and fines of up to LE200,000 if found guilty.
In the statement, Amnesty called on the authorities to drop all charges, which the group decried as “retribution for testifying about abuses carried out by the security forces.”
Of the defendants, 14 had participated in the march that day. But lawyer and women’s rights activist Azza Soliman “was purely an eyewitness” to the fatal shooting, Amnesty said, while co-defendant Mostafa Abdel Aal was a bystander who carried the mortally wounded Sabbagh to a nearby café, and doctor Maher Shaker then tried to tend to her wounds.
“I don’t think the state is dealing with this as a simple case of violating the protest law,” Abdel Aal told Mada Masr. “This is a politicized trial.”
Abdel Aal, whose attempted rescue of Sabbagh was captured in a widely viewed video, maintained that he, Soliman and Shaker were all sitting in coffee shops in downtown Cairo when the protest was taking place.
“There are no other criminal charges leveled against us, and nobody stands trial for being an eyewitness in a criminal case. So why is it that those who participated in the protest, and those who did not, are both being tried?” he asked.
If convicted, Abdel Aal asserted that the defendants would refuse to pay any court-mandated fines, as they don’t recognize the constitutionality of the protest law.
And even if the law was constitutional, he said, the police didn’t respect its provisions in this case.
“Police are first to issue warnings to protesters to disperse, followed by firing a water cannon or teargas. Only after these steps are they allowed to shoot birdshot,” Abdel Aal explained. According to eyewitness testimony, police fired at the protesters without issuing a warning first, he claimed.
Lieutenant Yassin Salah Eddin was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing Sabbagh, but Abdel Aal believes “his sentence will likely be appealed and his prison term reduced. If his appeal is accepted, he might even be let off on a suspended sentence.”
Abdel Aal fears that the peaceful protesters and eyewitnesses will end up being punished in his stead.
Amnesty’s statement urged readers to write letters to Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek before November 16 to exhort him to drop the charges.