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Egyptian emergency court sentences three prominent prisoners to years behind bars

Alaa Abdel Fattah takes a moment as he speaks about his late father, Ahmed Seif, one of Egypt's most respected human rights lawyers, during a conference at the American University in Cairo in 2014. (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
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CAIRO — An Egyptian court sentenced prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah to five years in prison on Monday, marking the latest turn in a saga that has seen him spend most of the last decade behind bars.

Human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer, who had previously represented Abdel Fattah, and blogger Mohamed Ibrahim, known as “Oxygen,” were each sentenced to four years in prison. All three men were charged with “spreading false news undermining national security.” Under the rules of the court, there is no possibility for them to appeal — the sentence can be overturned only by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi or someone he delegates.

Human rights groups have widely condemned the men’s imprisonments. Abdel Fattah is one of several members of his family who have faced prison time. His younger sister, Sanaa Seif, was convicted in March of spreading false news, misusing social media and insulting an on-duty police officer. Amnesty International described her conviction as a “crushing blow for the right to freedom of expression in Egypt.”

She is expected to be released soon.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said “we’re disappointed by the verdicts issued today by Egypt’s State Security Court.”

“Journalists, human rights defenders, and others seeking to peacefully exercise their freedom of expression should be able to do so without facing criminal penalties, intimidation, harassment, or any other form of reprisal,” he told reporters at the State Department

Abdel Fattah, Baqer and Ibrahim’s trial was launched shortly before Egypt announced in October the end of its lengthy state of emergency. The resulting timing drew criticism from human rights groups.

“The government’s rush to use emergency courts before declaring the end to the state of emergency, after holding people illegally for years in pretrial detention, confirms that fierce repression of peaceful critics remains the order of the day in Egypt,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. According to the advocacy group, at least 48 individuals in pretrial detention were referred to emergency courts shortly before Sissi announced the end of the state of emergency.

Abdel Fattah, whose father was a prominent human rights lawyer and whose mother is a professor and activist, has spent years in and out of prison under multiple Egyptian governments. He was jailed for 45 days in 2006 after joining an anti-government protest, and detained again in 2011 when he became active in the movement that ultimately forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down. The latter protests came amid a wave of demonstrations against autocratic governments across the Arab world.

In the ensuing years, Abdel Fattah was charged with organizing an unlawful protest and was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison. He was released in 2019 under the condition that he report to his local police station each night. He slept there for months but was then jailed again soon after.

In an essay published in the New York Times on Dec. 17, his mother, Laila Soueif, wrote that for most of his time in prison he has “been held without charge, in pretrial detention.”

Now, she wrote, the family understands “Alaa is on trial for retweeting a tweet about a prisoner who died after being tortured, in the same prison where Alaa is now held.”

“His crime is that, like millions of young people in Egypt and far beyond, he believed another world was possible,” she wrote. “And he dared to try to make it happen.”

Egypt is a key strategic partner of the United States, which provides some $1.3 billion in assistance to Cairo each year. The Biden administration has, however, raised some concerns over Sissi’s human rights record. Earlier this year, Washington imposed new conditions on some aid, withholding $130 million until Egypt ends certain prosecutions against human rights organizations and drops charges against or releases 16 people whose cases Washington had raised with Cairo since early summer.

A senior congressional staffer in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the relationship between the two countries, said Monday that the “unjustified and purely politicized sentences … are yet another sign of the Sissi regime’s repressive and unchanging attitude toward basic human rights and freedoms.”

“Such sentences cast doubt on Egypt’s purported commitment to addressing rights issues raised by numerous members of Congress as well as the Biden administration in the U.S.-Egypt Strategic Dialogue just last month,” the staffer said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry flew to Washington for the two-day dialogue, where he met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. A joint statement released after the meetings said the two countries “held a constructive dialogue on human rights and fundamental freedoms,” among other topics.

In September, Egypt introduced an official human rights strategy. While some saw it as a positive step, advocates expressed concerns that it would not result in widespread change in the country, which has seen an enormous crackdown on freedom of speech in the years since Sissi came to power.

Last week, Germany’s Foreign Ministry tweeted that it expected “the Egyptian government to lobby for a fair trial & the release of [Baqer] & his co-defendants.”

“Lawyers cannot be punished for practicing their profession,” the tweet read.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a sharp rebuke, saying in a statement that Germany’s comment amounted to “unreasonable interference into Egyptian internal affairs” and undermined the independence of Egypt’s judiciary.

Abdel Fattah’s trial comes soon after a number of other developments in court cases against prominent activists. Late last month, human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat was found guilty of spreading false news and insulting a state authority and was fined about $650. Bahgat is the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an advocacy group.

Earlier this month, EIPR researcher Patrick George Zaki, who had been held in detention since last year over charges he spread false information, was released pending his trial slated for early next year.

“Hope to hear something good today,” Zaki tweeted Monday, alongside photos of the three men awaiting their sentences.

John Hudson in Grand Rapids, Mich., contributed to this report.

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