International

Egypt’s crackdown goes deeper than the Al Jazeera verdict alone

Security forces hold some 16,000 political prisoners, perhaps hundreds more held in secret, writes Al Jazeera reporter

Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison on Monday for allegedly spreading false news and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, verdicts that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called “draconian” and “chilling.”
Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

When an Egyptian criminal court judge sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to prison terms of seven to 10 years on Monday, he sent a warning shot to anyone reporting in the country: Be wary of challenging the government’s narrative.

But for thousands of other detainees caught up in a crackdown on dissent that began last summer, no warning shot was needed.

Human rights groups estimate that police forces have detained at least 16,000 people for political reasons since the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood–led government in July 2013.

Among them are former President Mohamed Morsi, a high-ranking Brotherhood member and Egypt’s first democratically elected leader; members of his executive staff; the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader and other top officials; and thousands of anonymous activists and protesters.

The Jazeera sentences, which prosecutor Hisham Barakat described as a “deterrent verdict,” prompted widespread condemnation from human rights groups and Western governments. 

A warning to all journalists that they could one day face a similar trial and conviction.

Mohamed Lotfy

Amnesty International

Peter Greste, an Australian; Mohamed Fahmy, a Canadian-Egyptian; and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian, were each given seven-year sentences for allegedly spreading false information and collaborating with the Brotherhood. Mohamed was sentenced to an additional three years for possessing a spent bullet casing he picked up from the ground at a protest.

The United Kingdom and the Netherlands — home to journalist Rena Netjes, who was sentenced in absentia for meeting with an Al Jazeera reporter — both summoned their Egyptian ambassadors in protest, and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lynne Yelich wrote on Twitter that she would be contacting the Egyptian foreign minister to “express Canada’s concern.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he spoken with newly elected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the former defense minister and military intelligence chief who brought down Morsi, to tell him Greste is innocent.

In addition to Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed, four Egyptian defendants were sentenced to seven years, and 11 other defendants, including six Al Jazeera journalists, were sentenced in absentia.

Mohamed Lotfy, an observer with Amnesty International, said the sentences were “a warning to all journalists that they could one day face a similar trial and conviction.”

The defendants can appeal their verdicts, and Sisi has the power to pardon them, but among close observers of Egyptian politics, there seemed to be little hope for a speedy change to the rulings or to the larger environment of political repression.

Return to status quo?

Many noted that the verdicts came the day after a brief but high-profile visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who signaled that the United States was eager to resume the strategic relationship and military aid that characterized the rule of Morsi’s predecessor, longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was brought down in the 2011 uprising.

Kerry criticized Monday’s verdicts as “draconian” and “chilling,” but Sisi gave little indication that the foreign protests mattered. In remarks on Tuesday, he said he would not interfere with the judiciary.

While foreign outcry has characterized the reaction to the Jazeera trial, Western politicians and journalists outside Egypt have paid less attention to the dizzying series of verdicts that have been handed down en masse for dissidents and Brotherhood members — hundreds of them sentenced to death or life in prison — by Egypt’s lower courts.

Such verdicts, according to human rights activists, are often rendered after trials that feature even less evidence than the proceedings that convicted the Jazeera journalists. Some, including mass death sentences, have come after trials that have lasted just hours, with no lawyers present for the defendants. Meanwhile, no police officers have been found guilty of any crimes of violence since Morsi’s violent ouster, which involve the brutal clearing of several large sit-ins and more than 1,000 deaths.

On Saturday an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences against the leader of the Brotherhood and 182 supporters in a mass trial related to violence that broke out against Christian communities in the southern governorate of Minya after Morsi’s fall.

The verdicts can be appealed, but they reveal how segments of a judiciary that was once held up as one of the few bastions of independent opposition to Mubarak have now, in the view of many analysts, run amok with apparent carte blanche to harshly sentence Islamists and regime opponents.

“Those rulings are a continued farce,” Egyptian human rights activist and lawyer Gamal Eid told Reuters. “And the state is still insisting that the judiciary is independent. I don’t know how we can believe that when we see rulings like that. It is against logic and common sense. It is a joke.”

A fractured state

With the Jazeera verdicts, pressure on watchdogs like Human Rights Watch and a general crackdown on dissent, observers may find it increasingly hard to gain information about the fate of detainees who are reportedly subject to worsening treatment.

According to accounts in The Guardian, political dissidents have said they are being sexually assaulted in police custody, and possibly hundreds are secretly being held incommunicado at the Azouli military prison in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia. Prisoners there are regularly electrocuted, beaten and hung naked as part of interrogations, The Guardian reported.

One the key drivers of the repression is a protest law passed in November by interim President Adly Mansour, a Supreme Constitutional Court judge who oversaw the government after Morsi was ousted.

The law effectively bans protests, subject to near total police discretion, and gives the Interior Ministry the right to prohibit any meeting “of a public nature” involving more than 10 people, even if it is related to electoral campaigning, according to Human Rights Watch.

A lawsuit challenging the protest law by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Center to Support the Rule of Law was recently referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court, but police continue to break up even small peaceful demonstrations under its rules.

On June 21 at a protest against the law, 23 activists were arrested, including Yara Sallam, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Their detention was extended for four days on June 23.

At this point, analysts say, it’s unclear if even Sisi can rein in a state that may have undergone fundamental and irreversible changes since the 2011 uprising.

“Since the overthrow of Mubarak, I think we have seen a state that has fractured,” Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert with the Century Foundation, told “PBS NewsHour.” “Lots of autonomy has been vested within individual institutions, and it’s created a somewhat chaotic scene in which red lines have been crossed and the powers of certain institutions are somewhat unclear.”

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