The State Security Prosecution extended the detention of six labor leaders employed by the Public Transport Authority (PTA) by 15 days on Wednesday, pending investigations, while leveling new accusations against them.
The workers, who have been in detention for the past 12 days for attempting to organize a bus strike in Cairo, are now being accused of “establishing a terrorist cell” within the PTA with the aim of instigating unrest and work stoppages. If they are found guilty on terrorism-related charges they may face lengthy prison sentences, potentially amounting to years in prison.
Citing the latest accusations from the New Cairo State Security Prosecution, the privately owned Youm7 news portal reported that in addition to attempting to obstruct traffic on the first day of the academic year, “the defendants recruited elements who were assigned to mobilize others within the PTA in order to pressure officials into conceding to some of their demands.”
The new claims come just one week after authorities accused the defendants of being members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organization, despite the fact they had previously come into direct conflict with the group during former President Mohamed Morsi’s tenure.
The workers were arrested from their homes on September 24, the night before their planned strike which was set to coincide with the beginning of the academic year, and Youm7 reports that security forces confiscated their laptops, cell phones and leaflets. They were then forcibly disappeared and their whereabouts currently remain unknown.
Ali Fattouh, a PTA bus driver told Mada Masr: “They were effectively kidnapped from their homes, and we have been unable to communicate with them since their arrest. Nobody has been able to speak with them, including local trade union officials, their immediate family members, defense lawyers or concerned human rights organizations.”
He demanded the immediate release of his jailed coworkers, calling the charges against them “trumped-up and politicized.”
“Upon their arrest we expected that they would be accused of being Brotherhood members, terrorists or of attempting to overthrow the ruling regime,” Fattouh said.
Citing defense lawyers who attended the prosecution’s hearing on Wednesday, the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) issued a statement dismissing the most recent accusations and charges. The statement asserted that “there is no physical evidence or validity to the claims.”
The lawyers argued that their clients were employed in a governmental agency and their places of residence were known, and as such they posed no danger to society. They added, “for several years now, the six workers have been well known for their union activism,” questioning what they call the prosecution’s “sudden discovery” that the defendants were Brotherhood members.
Fattouh too denied the validity of the claims, stating “the PTA workers were among the earliest critics of the Brotherhood and their labor policies when they were in power, so how is it that they are now being accused of affiliation to the Brotherhood? It makes no sense whatsoever.”
The six would-be strike leaders had been demanding increased bonuses, improved wages and that the PTA fall under the administration by the Ministry of Transport instead of local governorates.
According to Fattouh his colleagues were previously arrested in 2012 – 13 while organizing strikes and industrial actions within the PTA.
He emphasized to Mada Masr that none of his imprisoned coworkers are members of any political, claiming “the ruling authorities are trying to instill fear into the hearts of all Egypt’s workers with the message that you can be arrested and disappeared for demanding, or even attempting to demand, your basic rights. Their message is that if you seek to strike you will be branded a terrorist, a foreign agent or a traitor. However, the populace knows that these accusations are entirely baseless.”
The workers’ defense lawyers also argued that the right to strike is constitutionally protected, adding that their clients were arrested and jailed for a planned strike that did not even take place.
Article 15 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution recognizes the right of employees to engage in work stoppages, stipulating, “the right to peaceful strike shall be regulated by the law.”
The public transport sector has witnessed repeated strikes over the last five years revolving around the same issues, leading to continual negotiations between striking workers and the PTA.