Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Woman who criticized Egypt’s handling of sexual harassment jailed for spreading ‘false news’

September 29, 2018 at 2:21 PM

A woman walks past a mural depicting a message against sexual harassment on a highway in Cairo. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Egyptian activist Amal Fathy’s Facebook video was only 12 minutes long — but that was enough to catch the attention of Egyptian authorities and earn her a two-year jail sentence for “spreading false news.”

In early May, Fathy posted a video to Facebook that described how she had been sexually harassed at a bank. She also criticized living conditions in Egypt more generally and discussed issues of sexual harassment at large, claiming the government does not do enough to protect women from this type of aggressive behavior.

The video circulated widely online and was picked up by some media outlets. Days later, police arrived at her house to arrest her. Since then, she has spent more than 140 days in prison, and allegations against her have grown to include claims she belongs to a terrorist organization. Reuters reported she was a member of the April 6 youth movement, an activist group that is now banned.

On Saturday, an Egyptian court handed down a two-year jail sentence and a fine of about $560. Fathy’s bail, which Amnesty International said in a statement would temporarily suspend the sentence, was posted at about $1,120. Saturday’s sentencing was over charges she spread false news that authorities determined was damaging to Egypt’s national security. Other charges are pending.

“This is injustice, unjustified and incomprehensible,” Reuters quoted her husband, Mohamed Lotfy, as saying. “We have provided all the evidence to prove that she didn’t spread false news.”

“When a woman is subjected to sexual harassment and gets sentenced to two years and fined, then this means we are telling all Egyptian women ‘shut your mouths … if you don’t want to go to prison’," Lotfy said. He is a human rights activist and serves as director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.

Lotfy previously worked for Amnesty, and in a personal statement published to the rights group’s website in August, he wrote that his wife’s arrest “shocked and gutted” him.

He said that though she was originally granted bail in the Facebook video case, she was then held in pretrial detention for a number of other charges, including “intentionally disseminating false news that could harm public security and interest.” She was also accused of “using a website to promote ideas calling for terrorist acts.”

“Instead of prosecuting perpetrators of violence against women, the Egyptian authorities are persecuting Amal Fathy for speaking out against sexual harassment,” Amnesty International said in a statement in August, when it called on Egyptian authorities to release Fathy and drop the charges. “It is a shocking case of injustice.”

Sexual harassment is widespread in Egypt. A 2013 United Nations study found that 99 percent of Egyptian women reported having experienced sexual harassment. This summer, Egypt tightened laws around Internet use in the country, which include supervision for certain social media accounts.

On Friday, U.N. human rights experts raised alarm over Fathy’s case, saying in a statement that she is “reportedly suffering from acute stress as a result of her prolonged detention and was diagnosed with paralysis in July.”

Amnesty International said in a statement it had found that Fathy’s Facebook post "does not contain incitement of any form, and as such is protected as freedom of expression.” The group called Fathy’s sentence “disgraceful” and “an outrageous case of injustice.”

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Siobhán O’Grady writes about foreign affairs for the Washington Post. She previously freelanced across Africa and worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy magazine.

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