The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is shocked by today's decision by the Heliopolis Misdemeanor Court to keep the organization's transitional justice officer, Yara Sallam, and 22 others behind bars, while their trial on charges of breaching the draconian protest law and other accusations including damaging property and displaying force continues. The charges relate to a peaceful protest on 21 June in the neighborhood of Heliopolis, which was forcibly dispersed by security forces aided by unknown assailants in civilian dress.
Confusion remains around the next hearing date as the Judge and the court administration left without informing lawyers and distressed relatives of his decision. Court security claimed that the next hearing will be held on 13 September – the date also reported in the state newspaper al-Ahram. However, official confirmation can only be obtained tomorrow when the courts re-open. In the meantime, families and colleagues remain in agony.
EIPR believes that Ms. Sallam was arrested and indicted to trial on baseless charges and that the judicial authorities’ handling of the case raises strong concerns about due process and the fairness of the trial. The way detention or trials of human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and journalists have been conducted recently denies defendants the right to adequate defense and keeps families and lawyers in the dark sometimes about what is happening to their loved ones.
During today's hearing, defense lawyers asked to see and verify the validity of all the evidence presented against the defendants by the prosecution including audiovisual material of the demonstration. That request was granted by the court. However, lawyers' request for the provisional release of the defendants was rejected. In recent months, prolonged pretrial detention has afflicted protesters, activists and others suspected of dissent. The EIPR believes that today's decision amounts to a punitive measure given the lack of credible evidence linking the defendants to any violent acts, and the low risk of absconding if the defendants were released on bail.
Four days after their arrest on 21 June, the public prosecution speedily issued an indictment order referring Ms. Sallam and 22 others to trial on charges of participating in a demonstration without authorization which allegedly endangered public order and security, damaging property and displaying force with the aim of terrorizing passersby and endangering their lives and taking part in a gathering of more than five people with the aim of threatening “public peace” and committing crimes.
The EIPR has repeatedly called on the government to repeal or amend the protest law (Law number 107 of 2013) and other legislation severely limiting the right to freedom of assembly and in practice used to clampdown on dissent. So far, all such demands have gone unheeded.
The seven women, child, and 15 men in the cage today were either targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly or simply were unlucky bystanders picked-up randomly in the vicinity of a dispersed protest.
Further, the EIPR is deeply concerned that the defendants may be facing trumped-up charges of damaging property in the absence of any credible evidence and with inconsistencies in the police reports. For instance, a police report claims that a police vehicle was damaged at 9:30pm on 21 June while most defendants including Ms. Sallam had been arrested earlier. The prosecution's case accusing the defendants of violent acts rests on reports from the National Security Agency and the Criminal Investigations Department, as well as witness testimonies from police officers. Further, no weapons or other items were seized from the defendants or presented as evidence to back-up claims that they damaged property or used force.
Since Ms. Sallam's and her co-defendants’ arrest on 21 June, procedures in this case have been characterized by a lack of transparency and respect for due process rights. Not only did the authorities prevent defendants' from contacting their lawyers or families upon arrest, they also failed to provide information about defendants’ whereabouts at one stage or the other. Today's decision to hold the hearing inside the Police Academy in the Tora Prison Complex instead of the Heliopolis Court was not communicated to lawyers, who upon unofficially discovering the change of location rushed across Cairo to make the trial.
Further, the EIPR fears that Ms. Sallam's predicament may be linked to her human rights work given the release of her cousin without charge on the night of their arrest together at a kiosk in Heliopolis. These fears are substantiated by the fact that during initial interrogations at the Masr al-Gidida Police Station on the night of her arrest on 21 June, Ms. Sallam was repeatedly questioned on the nature of her work and the organization's management.
The speed with which this case was referred to court, coupled with the logistical challenges facing lawyers in obtaining the case file and information about hearing dates and locations, infringes on the rights of all defendants to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of defense. The defendants were expected to appear in court on 25 June following the expiry of their four-day detention order. They were not brought to court, and lawyers were informed that the indictment order had been issued instead. As such, before their referral to trial, the defendants were not able to challenge the lawfulness of their pretrial detention in front of an independent judicial body.
The handling of this case thus far casts doubts on whether defendants could have a fair trial with due process which mandates that all evidence for and against the defendants is examined impartially and under the same conditions. An adequate due process also requires cross examination of the prosecution’s witnesses and for the defense witnesses to be heard. If the court date of 19 September is confirmed, the defendants will have spent 10 more weeks in prison until they get their day in court and their chance to prove their innocence.
In the meantime, Ms. Sallam and the six other women remain detained at the al-Qanater Prison, after spending three nights at different police stations. The authorities did not inform lawyers or families of any of these transfers.