Well-known Egyptian human rights and political activist Sanaa Seif was sentenced to one year and six months in prison by a criminal court in the Egyptian capital Cairo on Wednesday, March 17. She was prosecuted and sentenced on charges of “spreading fake news via her social media for the purposes of stirring public opinion against state institutions”, “disturbing security and peace and disrupting the institutions of the state from their work” and “insulting a police officer” on a post on her Facebook account. Seif has categorically denied the charges from the beginning. The activist was also accused of spreading false information and rumors about the COVID-19 pandemic and the health situation in Egypt, particularly inside prisons.
Seif was arrested last year on June 23 after being abducted outside the Prosecutor General’s office, where she had gone with her sister Mona Seif and mother Leila Soueif to file a complaint against an attack on them that took place outside the Tora prison on the previous day. The family had been camping outside the prison daily to demand that they be allowed to meet and communicate in writing with the Seif’s brother, Alaa Abdel Fattah, an activist and blogger who has been in prison since September 2019. He is being held for participating in anti-government protests opposing civilians being tried in military courts. Leila Soueif is a respected human rights activist, mathematician and scholar. Seif’s father, Seif al-Islam, who died in 2014, was a prominent human rights lawyer.
The family was attacked and brutally assaulted by a group of armed women in plainclothes while they were waiting outside Tora prison to receive letters from Seif’s brother. The unidentified women also robbed them of their belongings. Seif was kidnapped the next day by men in plainclothes. She was presented at the criminal court two months after her abduction, where her trial began on September 12, 2020. She ended up spending nine months in pre-trial detention. Her lawyer, Hesham Ramada, has said that they will appeal the verdict of the criminal court in a higher court.
Multiple news reports also noted that Seif has been persecuted and imprisoned by Egyptian authorities earlier as well. She was slapped with a six-month jail term in 2016 for “insulting the judiciary”. In 2014, she was arrested and given a three-year prison sentence for participating in “unlawful protests”. She received a presidential pardon and was released in 2015 after serving 15 months of her sentence.
Eight prominent Egyptian rights groups, including El Nadim Center, Egyptian Front for Human Rights, Freedom Initiative, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms, released a statement on Wednesday calling for Seif’s immediate release. The statement denounced the “flawed trial and investigation process used against Seif, which violates fair trial rights enshrined in international law.”
The eight organizations also expressed concern about the wider crackdown on dissent, freedom of speech and expression, human rights and civil liberties in Egypt, which has resulted in illegal and arbitrary arrests, abductions and forced disappearances of thousands of journalists, activists, lawyers, opposition figures, government critics and Muslim Brotherhood members. There have been allegations of mental and physical torture by Egyptian authorities inside prisons, with reports suggesting hundreds of prisoner deaths due to medical negligence in the aftermath of cruel treatment meted out to them.
The sentence has been widely condemned by international human rights organizations. Amnesty International stated that the charges against her are “stemming purely from her peaceful criticism.” Amna Guellali, Amnesty’s deputy director for Middle East and North Africa, said, “today’s verdict is yet another crushing blow for the right to freedom of expression in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities have yet again demonstrated their unrelenting intent to punish any criticism of their dismal human rights record.” She also called on the Egyptian authorities to immediately secure Seif’s release and open an investigation into the violent attack on her and her family, as well as look into the alleged collusion of state authorities with the perpetrators of the attack.
Human Rights Watch’s Amr Magdi in a statement called the sentence “unjust”, adding, “it is outrageous from the beginning that she was arrested and prosecuted instead of investigating the physical assault against her. The sentence shows the status of the Egyptian judiciary today, which is largely in the service of the political interests of the government, rather than assisting in delivering justice.”
A statement denouncing her arrest and calling for her release has been signed by several international celebrities such as Danny Glover, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Thandie Newton and Judi Dench, journalists like Amy Goodman and academics including Noam Chomsky.
The status of human rights in Egypt particularly deteriorated after president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi grabbed power in 2013 after orchestrating a military coup against the democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi. Morsi later died under mysterious circumstances in prison with allegations of torture and medical negligence surfacing. According to Human Rights Watch, approximately 60,000 political prisoners are currently being held in Egyptian prison by the Sisi regime.