Egypt: three women on trial tomorrow on trumped-up protest charges should be freed

‘Amnesty International considers the women prisoners of conscience … It is baffling that they now may face life in prison’ - Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui
 
Amnesty International is calling on the Egyptian authorities to release three young women who are due to go on trial tomorrow charged with belonging to a banned organisation using “terrorist” methods - a charge regularly used by the authorities against those perceived to support the Muslim Brotherhood.  
 
The women - Abrar Al-Anany, 18, Menatalla Moustafa, 18 (both students at Mansoura University) and Yousra Elkhateeb, 21, a recent graduate - are also charged with protesting without permission under Egypt’s restrictive new protest law, as well as charges of thuggery, attacking the security forces and destroying public property. If convicted, they face a possible life imprisonment sentence.
 
The three were arrested on 12 November at a protest at Mansoura University - 75 miles north-east of Cairo - after clashes erupted on the university campus between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. After university security tried and failed to take control of the situation, the university president called state security forces to intervene. These entered the campus in armoured vehicles and shot tear gas to disperse the students. At least 23 students were arrested, including the three women, and at least 70 people injured.  
 
According to witnesses and the women’s lawyers, however, the three women were not involved in the clashes, having peacefully taken part in protests earlier but having sought safety in a room at the university’s pharmacy faculty when violence broke out. Amnesty has seen a copy of a letter from the university’s security department to the public prosecutor stating that the women did not take part in the violence and asking for their release. 
 
The three have been held at Mansoura’s Public Prison since their arrest, where they are allowed only a weekly five-minute visit from their families. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Interior has prevented the two detained students from having access to their books to study inside the prison, and they have been prevented from taking the end-of-semester exams. 
 
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:
 
“Amnesty International considers the women prisoners of conscience detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly. They have denied any involvement in the violence and this has been corroborated by the university security.
 
“It is baffling that they now may face life in prison.
 
“The authorities seem determined to punish anyone who expresses dissent, irrespective of facts.
 
“The Egyptian authorities must stop treating peaceful protesters like criminals. The relentless crackdown on demonstrations, freedom of expression and independent reporting must end.” 
 
Background
Since the beginning of the academic year last September, several protests have been held on university grounds by the “Students against the Coup”, an anti-government activist group. University campuses and even dorms have become frequent sites of clashes. The clashes at Mansoura University on 12 November lasted more than five hours.
 
Universities across Egypt have been affected by protests and clashes including the largest two universities in Greater Cairo - Cairo University and Ain Shams. Al-Azhar University remains a centre of student unrest. At least five al-Azhar University students have been killed in confrontations with security forces, and over 200 arrested. Security forces have used excessive force - including lethal force - to disperse the protests, and in some cases fired into or entered university grounds. 
 
Hundreds of students have been rounded-up by security forces during protests and clashes throughout Egypt. Over 500 students have been arrested in various protests since 3 July last year. Courts have issued convictions in three cases against al-Azhar University students, sentencing them to prison terms ranging from a year and a half to 17 years. 
 
Meanwhile, a new protest law restricting the right to public assembly signed by interim President Adly Mansour on 24 November fails to meet international standards. It gives the Interior Ministry wide discretionary powers over protests including the power to use of firearms against peaceful protesters. Protesters convicted of breaking the law can face up to five years in prison and fines of £9,000. 
 

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