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Egypt sentences Alaa Abdel Fattah, blogger and lawyer to years in prison

Abdel Fattah given five years and human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer and blogger Mohamed 'Oxygen' Ibrahim four years each by Emergency State Security Court
Alaa Abdel Fattah at his home in Cairo in 2019 (AFP)

Egypt's Emergency State Security Court sentenced prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah to five years in prison and human rights lawyer Mohamed el-Baqer and blogger Mohamed 'Oxygen' Ibrahim four years on Monday, in trials widely condemned by human rights defenders.

The sentences are final and cannot be appealed before the courts. However, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi must ratify them if they are to come into effect.

Abdel Fattah, Baqer, and Ibrahim were convicted of “spreading false news undermining national security" by the court, which has extraordinary powers under Egypt's state of emergency.

They were arrested in September 2019 and held in pre-trial detention for more than two years, which exceeds the maximum amount under Egyptian law.

They have been sentenced in connection with case No. 1228 of 2021, a second case that is essentially a replication of case No. 1356 of 2019.

After their two-year pre-trial detention in relation to the first case expired, they were added to a new case to keep them in detention, Ahmed Mefreh, a human rights lawyer and director of the Geneva-based Committee for Justice said. 

'I am unable to comprehend even the simplest things like why I am forbidden to read'

- Alaa Abdel Fattah

Abdel Fattah is a left-wing blogger, software developer, and icon of the 2011 revolution. He has had several intermittent jail terms since 2011 over participation in anti-government protests.

According to his sister, Mona, the activist addressed the court during the hearing and submitted three reports regarding various violations while in detention. 

"I was imprisoned before and sentenced to five years over my participation in protests, I was never in prison for anything related to violence. But I am used to at least spending sometime outdoors in the sun. I have been deprived of this in the last two years," he told the court.

"I am unable to comprehend even the simplest things like why I am forbidden to read."

Abdel Fattah's lawyer warned in September he was at risk of suicide over the conditions he was subjected to. The judge did not deliver the sentences himself, Mona said, and access to the court was strictly restricted.

'Series of due process violations'

Mefreh said that Monday's verdicts were based on "a series of due process violations". They were referred to trial in connection with the replicated case on 18 October without the knowledge of their lawyers, he explained, and the prosecution refused to inform their lawyers of the charges.

The court has denied the lawyers access to copies of the case files, while the three detainees were not confronted with any evidence except for posts on their social media accounts that criticised human rights violations in Egyptian prisons, Mefreh added.

'The verdict is a clear message from the government of President Sisi to the international community...that there will be no real change or amendment to the human rights situation in the country,'

- Ahmed Mefreh, CFJ

"Today’s ruling reflects the Sisi regime’s targeting of three types of critics in the country: political activists who supported the 2011 revolution, represented in Alaa Abdel Fattah, human rights defenders represented by Baqer, and journalists and free speech advocates like Oxygen," Mefreh told MEE.

"The verdict is a clear message from the government of President Sisi to the international community and Cairo’s partners - primarily the US - that there will be no real change or amendment to the human rights situation in the country," he added.

"Egypt’s human rights policy will continue to rely on propaganda and disinformation rather than genuine reform."

Amnesty International also condemned the ruling as "a misrepresentation of justice, and a reminder of the Egyptian authorities’ brutality against opponents." It called on Sisi to repeal the sentences and release the three detainees. 

The United Nations, US Congress, and European Parliament have all previously called for human rights defenders and protesters, including Abdel Fattah, Baqer, and Ibrahim, to be released. 

On Monday, the US State Department said it was "disappointed by the verdicts."

"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," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

"We've emphasised to the Egyptian government that our bilateral relationship will be strengthened by improving respect for human rights. And we will continue to engage the Egyptian government to promote freedom of expression and other universal human rights."

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Rights groups have said that the three activists have been mistreated in jail, denied access to books, exercise time, warm clothes during the winter, a mattress, and fresh air within their cells.

Abdel Fattah was first jailed in 2013, over charges of protesting without permission. In February 2015 he was sentenced to five years in prison, then granted conditional release in March 2019.

The terms of his parole on his release meant that he must spend every night in a cell in his local police station, where he was re-arrested in September 2019. His family believes he was seized for retweeting a post on Twitter about a prisoner who allegedly died after being tortured.

Baqer, a human rights lawyer, was himself arrested while attending to an interrogation of Abdel Fattah, who he was serving as legal counsel.

Ibrahim, meanwhile, was first arrested in April 2018 after reporting on his popular Oxygen Egypt blog about irregularities in that year's presidential election and Egyptian opposition figures. He was released on parole three months later, before being arrested again in September 2019 under new charges.