How low will the Egyptian government go in silencing the voices of its citizens and its human rights activists? Last week, it went even lower than thought possible. In what amounted to a judicial masquerade, the Egyptian government suddenly decided to prosecute one of the world's most active and effective human rights defenders, Azza Soliman, for denouncing police brutality. Azza is a cofounder of the Cairo-based Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance (CEWLA), which provides free legal, social, and psychological services to women and marginalized groups and works to protect their rights.
Here are the facts: On January 24, 2015, in a peaceful demonstration organized by the Socialist People's Alliance Party, about 30 people, flowers in hand, set out to walk to Cairo's Tahrir Square to commemorate those who had died in the January 2011 revolution. The demonstration was violently dispersed by Egyptian security forces. The shocking photos that went around the world showed Shaimaa El Sabbagh dying in the arms of a colleague after being shot at close range by security forces. Azza Soliman, who was having lunch with friends, witnessed the tragedy from a restaurant across the street. That night, Azza came forward to give testimony to the prosecutor's office as a witness. She was held overnight and threatened with charges of breaking a law against public protests. After being released the next morning, Azza filed a complaint against the Minister of Interior and the Security Forces for having violently dispersed the peaceful protest and posted her testimony on Facebook.
On March 23, Egyptian prosecutors decided to go after her. Azza is now deemed a defendant in the case, not a witness, and is accused of protesting illegally and of breaching public order and security. Despite uproar from Egyptian human rights organizations and efforts by Azza's lawyers, prosecutors have so far refused to revert her status to that of witness and have refused to give her lawyer access to the court documents.
As a women's advocate and human rights defender, Azza is passionate about upholding the rule of law and freedom of expression and association in Egypt. But voices like hers are increasingly being silenced. The government's decision to prosecute her is the latest in a series of actions to suppress human rights defenders. Sixteen other members of the Socialist People's Alliance Party are also being charged for participating in the January 24 protest.
The decision to prosecute Azza is wrong and unjust. Azza's actions were legal, while the government's were not. Her prosecution is a violation of Egyptian law, which gives immunity to witnesses and is supposed to protect them.
The International Women's Health Coalition joins the many other women's advocates and human rights defenders who are calling on the Egyptian government to:
- Drop the charges against Azza and end all threats to her security.
- Drop the charges against the other party members who were participating in a peaceful protest, as is their right.
- Respect and commit to witnesses' right to protection and to the protection of all human rights defenders.
The first hearing in Azza's case is set for April 4. Leading up to this date, it is imperative that Egyptian leaders hear from the world that intimidation and wrongful accusations will not stand. Azza and other human rights defenders deserve our most ardent defense.