Three of the most prominent secular activists involved in Egypt’s 2011 revolution were convicted yesterday of holding a rally without authorisation and attacking police officers, receiving three-year prison terms and hefty fines in the first use of a controversial new law.
Judge Amir Assem found Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel, founders of the 6 April youth movement, guilty of violating the law passed last month. Each of them also faces fines of almost £4,500.
The 6 April movement helped organise the demonstrations that toppled longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and, like many other liberal activists, supported this year’s campaign for elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to leave office.
Since Mr Morsi was toppled by the military on 3 July after millions-strong demonstrations, however, the movement claims there has been a return of Mubarak-era police brutality and the curtailment of the freedom of expression – notably the protest law.
The government has described the law as an attempt to bring order and stability to the streets amid continued protests by Morsi supporters, hundreds of whom have been killed and thousands jailed. But rights groups and politicians warn the new law is an attempt by the military-backed government to curtail dissent, particularly ahead of planned elections that would pave the way for an elected post-Morsi leadership. A referendum on the constitution amended after Mr Morsi’s ouster is planned for mid January.
The court gave in its verdict one of the first legal defences of the new law. It comes after lawyers filed a constitutional challenge to the statute during the trial.
“The law was not drafted to deprive the people of their right to organise public meetings, and peaceful protests. It was drafted to organise this right” in accordance with the constitution currently in place, according to details of the ruling published on the state news agency.
Defence lawyer Alaa Abdel-Tawab said he will appeal against the court decision, describing it as “exceptionally harsh” for a misdemeanour court.
Egypt’s state news agency said the ruling also included putting the three under surveillance for three years after they serve their term – an unusual decision.
The agency said the defendants broke out in chants of “Police are thugs” and “Down, down with military rule” after the verdict. They had already been in detention and will now begin serving their sentences.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the new law empowers security agencies intent on “crushing the right of Egyptians to protest the actions of their government”.
They say authorities are now also targeting secular activists, like the three sentenced yesterday.
Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, said the case against the three, a similar referral of 24 other protesters and a leading blogger in Cairo to trial and others in the country’s second city Alexandria, appears to be the beginning of a new trend of targeting high profile activists who were behind the 25 January 2011 protests.