Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP) members and colleagues of killed activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh breathed in relief over the Qasr Al-Nil Misdemeanour Court’s decision to acquit them.
Despite the sense of relief, the decision was a surprise, with defence lawyer Anas Sayed telling Daily News Egypt: “The acquittal was not expected.”
Sayed said the judge expressed in the previous session there will be a preliminary verdict, and “we expected he is going to announce stopping the case and referring [it] to the Constitutional Court”.
The case dates back to 24 January, ahead of the fourth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution. Al-Sabbagh and a group came from Alexandria marched towards Tahrir Square in commemoration of the revolution.
The march was dispersed by force, despite its limited number and peaceful nature, which resulted in the killing of 32-year-old Al-Sabbagh, allegedly by police birdshot.
Al-Sabbagh’s case included two parts: the trial of the protesters and the trial of the Central Security Forces (CSF) officer facing charges of manslaughter and deliberate injury of civilians. His next trial session is expected on 7 June.
According to a copy of the verdict published by state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, the court stated that evidence revealed that the defendants marched holding flowers in commemoration of the martyrs of revolution, which is neither considered an assembly for political purposes, nor a protest.
The court added that the members spoke to the police officers in sight, trying to gain permission to put the flowers in Tahrir Square in commemoration of those who died during the 25 January Revolution, but their request was rejected, followed by a violent dispersal from security forces using tear gas and birdshots.
“We were expecting referring the case to [Supreme] Constitutional Court to rule on the protest law,” Sayed said.
Another defence lawyer, Mahmoud Abdel Gawad, told Daily News Egypt that he pleaded the unconstitutionality of the Protest Law and presented to the court a copy of a report filed by rights lawyers to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) against the law.
“The articles challenged in the law are the base of the charges,” Abdel Gawad explained saying this gives the court the right to stop the case until the SCC rules on the law.
Former interim president Adly Mansour issued the law in November 2013, granting security officials the power to ban protests or political gatherings.
Human Rights Watch judged the law as “violating international standards”. The Protest Law’s issuance by the interim government in November 2013 came at a time of frequent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and security forces. Since the law was enacted, it has been used to build numerous cases against students and activists on charges of “illegal assembly”.
The charge of illegal protesting has been used since against thousands, including Brotherhood members and supporters, as well as high profile pro-democracy activists like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Douma, Ahmed Maher, Sanaa Seif and Yara Sallam.
“Stopping the case [until the SCC rules on the law] would have been politically safer for [judge] Amir Assem, especially as he is respectful and had a lot of pressure on him,” Abdel Gawad added.
He also said that it is the court’s right to acquit defendants even without defence, but it cannot convict them without meeting defence demands.
“Clearly the political parameters at the time of referring defendants to court have changed and this made him [judge] rule the acquittal,” he said.
The SPAP’s legal adviser Ali Soliman made televised statements following the verdict saying it represents a message to the Ministry of Interior.
He pointed at the details of the verdict saying that the ministry dealt with “the commemoration” with great oppression.
“The real crisis is that the country is being directed by two sides: a side that referred the defendants to court as a punishment and a side that is wary of banding public against them,” Abdel Gawad concluded.