Lawyers: At least 70 arrested nationwide for alleged involvement in ‘protests’ sparked by train crash

In the wake of widespread criticism of the government’s lack of investment in railway infrastructure following a train crash last week that killed 22 people last week, at least 70 people have been arrested across Egypt over the weekend for alleged involvement in small scale anti-government demonstrations.

While there was notable backlash against the government online, Mada Masr has not been able to document the supposed protests those arrested partook in, with the exception of pharmacist Ahmed Mohie Eddin Abdel Aty, who was arrested on Thursday from Tahrir Square — the landmark site of protests during the 2011 revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak — after he held up a sign saying, “Step down, [President Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi.”

The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) confirmed that at least 49 others have been arrested throughout greater Cairo — many from public spaces, including Attaba, Tahrir and Ramses squares — from Thursday until Sunday evening. Several people were also arrested from their homes.

The arrest campaign also extended to other parts of the country, with at least 19 people arrested in Alexandria, according to lawyer Mahienour al-Massry, and the ECESR reporting that one person has also been detained from the Beheira city of Damanhour.

Ten of the 70 people whose arrests have been confirmed by lawyers have been released: four from Cairo, and six from Alexandria, according to the ECESR and Massry respectively. Fifty-one have been forcibly disappeared, according to these lawyers.

A number of lawyers have been dispersed to various prosecution offices in Alexandria in an attempt to locate individuals who have been disappeared following their arrests, Massry added.

The remaining nine people, including Abdel Aty, have appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution, which has ordered their detention for 15 days pending investigations into Case 1739/2018, which they have been added to. Abdel Aty, who was interrogated by prosecutors on Saturday, has been charged with joining a terrorist organization, according to the ECESR.

Six other individuals were previously charged in January by the Supreme State Security Prosecution in the same case after they participated in celebrations commemorating the eighth anniversary of the 2011 revolution. The six defendants include five members of the Nasserist Karama Party — Gamal Abdel Fattah, Mohab al-Ebrashy, Khaled Bassiouny, Khaled Mahmoud and Mostafa Faqir— who were arrested one day after a meeting at their party headquarters on January 27, as well as Civil Democratic Movement former spokesperson Yehia Hussein Abdel Hady, who was taken from his home in the Cairo neighborhood of Nasr City.

The defendants were charged with joining a terrorist organization and spreading false news.

Following the fatal crash in Cairo’s Ramses Railway Station — the largest train station in the country, which is located in the heart of the capital — social media users called for protests, sharing a video of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaking at the opening of national projects in Qena in May 2017. In the video, Sisi responds to the minister of transport’s outline of the scope of needed railway infrastructure overhaul by saying that LE10 billion is the bare minimum needed to start this overhaul. However, Sisi argued that this money would be better used collecting interest in banks.

“If I were to place that amount in the bank, with 10 percent interest, that’s LE1 billion. With the new interest rate, that’s LE2 billion. When the [railway] industry needs more than LE100 billion to improve its competence and networks — and that’s just Upper Egypt — how are we going to pay for all this?”

Local media and state television later discredited the video, asserting that Sisi’s remarks had been taken out of context and that the video in question had been fabricated by the Muslim Brotherhood.  

Abdel Aty broadcast live videos on Facebook during his demonstration and from the police van he was held in following his arrest. In the videos, he said that he was protesting in response to the train crash and that he had been arrested with another individual, appealing to the public in the face of what he described as an “unknown fate.”

“The simplest right of a human being — to represent what he is feeling — has now been taken away from us,” Abdel Aty said in the video.

Last Wednesday, 20 people were killed and 45 others injured, some critically, when a train crashed in Cairo’s Ramses Railway Station, according to Egypt’s Health Minister Hala Zayed. Two people died the next day from the injuries they sustained.

The train entered the station at high speed and collided into a concrete buffer stop at the end of the line on Platform 6, causing the fuel tank to explode and triggering a fire that quickly spread to other parts of the station, according to eyewitnesses.

In a statement issued on Wednesday evening, the Public Prosecution confirmed the arrest and interrogation of the conductor of the railcar that crashed.

The statement explained that the conductor had left the railcar he was driving due to an altercation with another railcar conductor and had not followed proper procedures, which required him to set the brake before exiting the railcar. Without the brakes on, the railcar began moving forward without the driver, picking up speed before crashing into the concrete buffer stop.

Public protest and expression have been tightly constricted since the passage of the protest law in 2013.

The law has been heavily criticized for essentially banning protests and sit-ins, and putting forth strict security measures on the right of peaceful assembly. It obliges protest organizers to inform the nearest police station of the place of the protest, its start and finish times and its goals and demands, in addition to the names and contact information of organizers.

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