The public trial of a dove

These days courthouses are inevitably located next to prisons.

There is no longer any desire to build monuments to justice, no intention to construct architecturally appealing courthouses. There are only halls in which punishment is meted out: punishment for defendants before the judgment is read; punishment for those who have turned out to support the defendant; punishment for those who work in these heavily fortified buildings. This is where we crush you out of love of God, nation and the law.

We went, as we have for the past four years. There’s always a prisoner of conscience, someone we know or someone we don’t, who has had the bad luck of falling into their clutches. People come to show solidarity — those who can, those who still have that capacity. Our numbers have dwindled, but that’s the way it is.

You enter through multiple gates of various sizes and shapes. The large one makes it clear that you are in the Tora Prison complex. The small one informs you that you must diminish your size to pass through. Then you turn over your personal belongings to a squadron of officers, policewomen and conscripts. You might see your notebook in the hands of an officer reading it in search of anything illegal. You give them what they want from your handbag and enter empty-handed, head bowed.

To reach the courtroom, you pass through a tube-like corridor that resembles the underground sewers in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, starring Orson Welles. That movie was filmed in post-war Vienna, just as the Cold War got underway.

When you pass through the tube, you might feel a rush of emotion: Who brought us here? Who made us walk like mourners at a never-ending funeral? Who turned flocks of doves into creatures scurrying into dark trenches out of fear and prudence? How did hope become a stupid, useless objective? And how did we, the persistent dreamers, wind up here?

You reach the third and final gate, and show the identity document you received at the second gate. This consists of two cards: the first states your occupation, the second holds the number of the locker in which you placed the contraband that is prohibited inside the courtroom.

You finally arrive.

When you enter the courtroom, you find yourself standing at the top of a massive tiered gallery, the judges’ bench oddly placed at the bottom. You realize immediately that this was a police academy lecture hall that has been converted. You can’t forget the history of things, especially when the new function is inspired by the old.

Along the length of the stairs, an improvised cage has been built to hold defendants during trial proceedings. Every visual memory you have of courtroom defendants’ cages is erased once you set eyes on this soundproof — human-connection-proof — iron cage.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people who visit this place have learned a rudimentary sign language. Most of the caged and uncaged possess five functioning senses, but sounds from one side don’t reach the ears of the other. Your eyes try to make out the prisoners stuffed inside. These are people whose faces we no longer see without the steel mesh overlay. I’ve often seen activist Alaa Abd El Fattah in there without being able to tell how long his hair or beard is, to see what time has done to him. I’ve often thought about how Alaa has stood there watching us trying to find him from afar, observing the changes that have overtaken us. Maybe he can’t make out our faces either and uses his imagination. How can we love under guard? We always watch every word we say, knowing dozens of guards will hear it as well.

At one of the hearings for the “insulting the judiciary” case, Alaa stood apart from the other defendants, his political foes. When the elderly and gravely ill judge Mahmoud al-Khodairy entered the cage, Alaa jumped up to help carry him into the steel cell. I tried hard to parse his movements and follow the confusing scene.

Alaa and I were among those who first met Khodairy during the judges’ rebellion of 2005. He was then a venerable symbol whose words shook the general assembly of the Judges’ Club. He was a gifted, passionate orator and well respected by many prominent jurists. So when his words came crashing down on our heads in the year of Brotherhood rule, we weren’t only angry with him, but saddened too. I now know that was during my romantic attachment to public affairs in Egypt; I didn’t yet realize that this was politics, where wishes are sacrificed and expediency reigns. If I was so disoriented outside the cage, I wondered, what was Alaa feeling as he supported the arms of Khodairy, honorable judge turned defendant?

At the pronouncement of judgment for activist Ahmed Douma on January 9, the arrangements were very clear. Security was on such high alert that I felt any movement — like going to the cafeteria for a cup of tea in the winter chill — was likely to throw the courtroom into a state of confusion, even before the proceedings began. Heavy silence, stillness, words spoken to feign fortitude. Even humor seemed fraught with danger, as the eyes of the police, temporarily sitting on the judges’ bench, reflexively watched over everyone.

They were careful to arrange the courtroom setting just so. They insisted the lawyers sit in a row by themselves, journalists in another row, friends and family in a row far from the journalists and lawyers. One officer ordered an armed guard to sit at the end of each row of the defendant’s supporters, but another officer was embarrassed because it looked unseemly with the guard cramming everyone in, so he made a set change: the soldiers would sit in a row by themselves, separating journalists from Douma supporters. Every time I turned around to speak to a friend, I found a soldier between us, an uninvited participant in the conversation.

Something else was new. A person in civilian clothes and with more than one cell phone sat among us. To enter the police academy with multiple phones, you must be an officer. He scrutinized us in the stillness. I was flabbergasted by the need to plant one of their own among us and felt for a moment that he had stepped out of a Kafka novel. Perhaps he was recording our breaths to pore over them in his office that evening, as he wrote his daily activity report. It’s odd when undercover policemen go to such great lengths to break cover.

And there was Douma, skinny and slight. It wasn’t the first time I saw him behind bars. He moved his head a lot, to show he was with us when we spoke to him. I don’t know what to say to a young man who has spent five years of his short life in prison, where an unspecified number of years still await him. It’s a life whose rhythms and anguish are now familiar to thousands of Egyptians.

After we all took our places on the set, more than one officer came in to check the courtroom and make sure we were in it. The judge had ordered his security detail to allow in everyone who had come to support Douma as he received additional prison years. Some people took this as a good sign, but later realized the truth. There was no truce, even after the crowds had been defeated and only this small band remained to defiantly insist on their presence — even coming to this building and undergoing humiliating measures to support a prisoner whom the state has repeatedly decided will be a lesson to them, to their recklessness and madness, and to the days when the state felt itself under threat. The state has not forgotten what happened, even if we have.

Tension set in. The police left the bench after checking the microphones were properly positioned and that we, the public awaiting the news, were too. The judges entered, decked out in official sashes. Norhan Hefzi, Douma’s wife, whispered in my ear, “They’re wearing the sashes, Rasha.”

Judge Mohammed Shirin Fahmi began by reading a verse from the Quran: “When it is said to them, ‘Do not spread corruption in the land,’ they say, ‘We are only ones that put things right.’ Truly, they are the workers of corruption but they are not aware.” He reviews the major legal effort that has gone into today’s judgment: more than 30 trial sessions, hundreds of pages of documents, witness testimonies, briefs and arguments. The judge then categorizes acts of patriotism and described at length what happened after the January 25 revolution: the chaos and destruction and the way people like the defendant infiltrated themselves among regular citizens taking to the streets to make spontaneous, parochial demands. He then narrated for us — the target of this prelude — the Cabinet building events of December 2011, in which Douma stands accused.

We sat in silence as he recited the events we lived. He said protestors had sought to antagonize police to cause clashes, and that demonstrators attacked and injured police. They blocked roads and attempted to the storm the People’s Assembly building, and finally they torched the Institut d’Egypte. The judge did not speak at all of those who were killed at the Cabinet building, the torture of demonstrators inside the People’s Assembly, or the reports filed against particular officers in connection with the events.

We heard every word, until we were nearly sick.

While the charges were being read, a dove found its way into the courtroom. More than a few people there were likely affected by the dove flying around the heavily armed courtroom. The judge’s voice was the only sound, save the bird’s flight.

The dove flailed around the ceiling and I imagine the people who were there in support of Douma found in it some respite from the memories being stirred up of when our companions were lawfully murdered in the streets, the days of slaughter, the image of the murdered Sheikh Emad Effat, the morning when Tahrir Square was stormed and soldiers dragged their prey along the asphalt — we all have our own private inventory of the Cabinet events in the winter of 2011. The dove pecked here and there.

It remained for a few seconds, maybe minutes. Maybe it left the way it entered. Maybe Douma didn’t notice it from his cage. I hope he saw it like we did. Maybe we absorbed the anxiety from the security personnel, upset by the frantic movement of the mindless bird in this dignified place. Who gave the bird permission to enter and perch on the bench like that? The dove had no identity card. It hadn’t passed through the three gates after a search. It didn’t take its assigned seat on the courtroom set. A travesty!

Maybe a Kafkaesque ending to this momentous event would have been for an officer to draw his weapon and kill some of us while trying to capture the troublesome dove on charges of insulting the judiciary. Don’t worry, he’d be acquitted in the same courtroom of accidental manslaughter while protecting the nation and justice.

The actual ending was no less tragic than the killing of the dove and us along with it. The court ruled that defendant Ahmed Douma should remain in prison for just 15 years. The court had wanted to hand down a more stringent sentence, but the law was merciful.

Amid the hysteria that followed the pronouncement, Douma spread his gaze over everyone, trying to reassure those of us shocked by the sentence — until he disappeared inside the cage, swallowed up by guards. We exited through the tube, carried by a torrent of tears and silence.

The dove may have safely escaped the courtroom, but we have not.

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Rasha Azab