An Egyptian court has sentenced one of the country’s most prominent pro-democracy activists to 15 years in prison. Alaa Abd El-Fattah was found guilty of illegal protest and attacking a police officer for a rally against a draconian protest law last year. Twenty-four other defendants in the case received the same 15-year sentence. Since they were tried in absentia, they are entitled to a retrial. It’s the first conviction of a prominent activist since former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office as president on Sunday. As El-Fattah faces a lengthy prison term, the Al Jazeera Arabic journalist Abdullah Elshamy is on a nearly five-month hunger strike in protest of his detention without charge. Elshamy has reportedly lost over a third of his body weight and is reportedly suffering from severe anemia, low blood pressure and the start of kidney failure. We go to Cairo to speak with Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s aunt, the famed Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, and Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. And we are joined by Abdullah Elshamy’s brother, Mohammed.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: An Egyptian court has sentenced one of the country’s most prominent pro-democracy activists to 15 years in prison. The sentence against Alaa Abd El-Fattah is the harshest that any secular activist has received for partaking in the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year reign. On Wednesday, the court found Abd El-Fattah guilty of illegal protest and attacking a police officer. Twenty-four other defendants charged in the case received the same 15-year sentence. In March, Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous spoke to him when he was released on bail.
ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: We have plans to fight this, both in court and out of court, obviously. I mean, these are not real courtrooms, this is not true justice, so you have to exert political pressures via protesting, via exposing the irregularities in the process and so on.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Alaa Abd El-Fattah being interviewed by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in March. Well, Alaa was just sentenced to 15 years in prison. It’s the first conviction of a prominent activist since former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office as president on Sunday.
For more, we go directly to Cairo, where we’re joined by Ahdaf Soueif, prominent Egyptian writer, the aunt of Alaa Abd El-Fattah. And we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now!’s correspondent in Cairo.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, let’s turn first to Alaa’s aunt, to Ahdaf Soueif. Your response to this sentence?
AHDAF SOUEIF: Well, the sentence is completely ridiculous. I mean, the charges are trumped up, and everybody knows that. And then, you know, 15 years for protesting is—you know, I mean, one hardly knows how to comment. The trial hadn’t even started. Alaa was waiting outside, waiting to be called in for the trial to start. The lawyers were registering and going through the security procedure. And then they heard that the judge had convened the court—the empty court, I guess—an hour early and had sentenced them to 15 years. And then they were picked up from the coffee shop outside, where they were waiting. So, not only is the content completely ludicrous, but even the procedures, that they used to be so keen on, have now been thrown away.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the accusation that he participated in an assault on a police officer, what is your understanding of what actually happened?
AHDAF SOUEIF: He didn’t. I mean, you know, this is—the state has repeatedly accused Alaa of violent crimes, which they have never been able to prove. So, at one point, they accused him of setting fire to a presidential candidate’s headquarters. And, of course, they were never able to prove that. And now—and before that, in the Maspero events in October 2011, they accused him of destroying an armored personnel carrier and taking all the weapons that were inside. And then, when they were challenged as to where the weapons were, they said, "Oh, he threw them in the river." The thing is absurd beyond absurdity. He did not attack a police officer. He did not steal a walkie-talkie or a gun or whatever it is he’s supposed to have stolen. And he did not even call for the protest that he’s supposed to have called for, because it was called for by the group No to Military Trials for Civilians, and they have claimed this call, and they have reported themselves to the police and to the prosecutor’s office and said that the call came from them. And all that had happened was that he was there, as were tens of others of people, when the protest took place. So, you know, 15 years, they just—they just want to put him away. They just want him off the streets before they, you know, continue with their, whatever, parliamentary elections or whatever it is that’s coming next.
AMY GOODMAN: His baby was born while he was in jail. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, this, though, is the first act of the first—of the new president of Iraq [sic], of General Abdel el-Sisi. Can you explain the significance of—of Egypt. Can you explain the significance of this?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the ruling did come down three days into Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency. It was issued by this court. I think it’s important to remember also that Alaa had asked that the judge recuse himself from the case. Alaa had protested this very judge in 2005 on accusations that the judge was part of rigging the 2005 parliamentary elections, as well.
You know, what happens to Alaa has almost become a barometer of repression in Egypt. He has the distinction of being persecuted by the past four successive regimes—by Mubarak, by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, by Morsi and now by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. I was at that protest, covering it when it happened. It was a 100 percent peaceful protest that was very swiftly attacked by the police. It happened two days after this draconian protest law was issued by an unelected government, that—it effectively prohibits peaceful protest in Egypt. They arrested Alaa a few days later. He was imprisoned for 115 days before he was brought to trial before a judge. They released him on bail, and now he’s been sentenced again to this ridiculous 15 years in prison, him and 24 other people.
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi himself has said that he’s going to uphold this protest law, that he’s going to have a zero-tolerance policy for what he calls people who want to, quote-unquote, "disrupt" the state. And we have to remember that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power on the back of massive protests against Morsi, and now he’s effectively banning these protests. And all of this is a part of a much wider campaign clamping down on any opposition, any voices of dissent, has targeted tens of thousands of people, many Muslim Brotherhood members, as well. The courts have handed down hundreds of death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood supporters. And it really brings to mind a quote by George Orwell’s 1984, where he says, if you want to imagine a picture of the future—"If you want a picture of the future, then imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever."
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in other news from Egypt, an Egyptian court on Wednesday extended the detention of an Al Jazeera Arabic journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, for an additional 45 days. Elshamy has been on hunger strike for nearly five months and has reportedly lost over a third of his body weight. In a video taken before his transfer to solitary, a frail-looking Elshamy said he has been denied medical treatment.
ABDULLAH ELSHAMY: I record this video after I have reached 106 days of my hunger strike to hold the Egyptian government, the Egyptian judiciary and the general prosecutor my responsibility, if anything ever happens to me. I have requested several medical checkups from independent sources, and yet this help has not been provided.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Abdullah Elshamy’s brother, Mohammed Elshamy, who is here in New York to study just for a few weeks. Mohammed, how is your brother doing? You just recently left Egypt.
MOHAMMED ELSHAMY: My brother’s health is not—like, it’s not really good, because after he began his hunger strike on the 21st of January, the police tried to press on him to get away from the strike, to stop it, because they think that’s what’s putting pressure on the government from, like, internal government human rights bodies or external from the West. They threatened him several times. When I was in Egypt, he told me this, that he threatened by few police officers, that he was going to be sent to solitary confinement if he doesn’t stop his hunger strike, because it’s like making them headache. That’s what they told him. And after a few pictures of him were leaked last May while he was in the prison, and the video that is like one month old, he was then moved to Scorpions Prison, and that’s a maximum-security prison, and it’s one of the most dangerous prisons in Egypt and is like for the thugs and for the armed killers. But, unfortunately, now, after the military coup in Egypt, we’re having journalists put in. And this was the same prison where Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were in, before the FreeAJStaff that just helped them to get into a public—
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Sharif, you just saw Mohamed Fahmy, the Al Jazeera English reporter, yesterday in court or jail?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, yes. That’s a separate case, yeah. It’s the Al Jazeera English journalist Mohamed Fahmy. He was actually taken from prison to a private hospital for a scan on his shoulder, which was injured prior to his arrest, but the injury was exacerbated by his imprisonment and his arrest. He said, "I’ve effectively been given a life sentence," because his—he has a permanent disability now in his shoulder. The next session in their trial is on June 16th. The prosecutor has wrapped up their case, has called for the maximum penalty, the maximum sentence to be imposed, which is up to 15 years in prison for these three journalists. So, it’s a difficult time now in Egypt.
And also there’s another prisoner who’s on hunger strike, as well. He’s a U.S. citizen, a dual citizen, U.S. and Egyptian. His name is Mohamed Sultan. He actually campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 and moved to Egypt in 2013. He was shot in the arm by police during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, the pro-Morsi sit-in, and was arrested 10 days later. He’s lost over 40 kilos in weight. That’s something like 90 pounds. He is restricted to a wheelchair now, and his health is in very, very serious danger.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. We will do a second interview with Mohammed Elshamy and post it online at democracynow.org. Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Ahdaf Soueif, thank you so much for joining us from Cairo, Egypt.