The Egyptian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release three women arrested last November at a protest at Mansoura University, said Amnesty International.
The organization said authorities should drop all the charges against the women, who are due to go on trial on Saturday 8 February. If convicted, they face up to life in prison.
“The detention of the three women at Mansoura University is just another example of the mounting crackdown on protesters and free expression in Egypt. They are facing fabricated and illegitimate charges simply for exercising their rights. The authorities have displayed a brazen disregard for the right to peaceful assembly in recent months and have sought to clamp down on any form of dissent with a restrictive new protest law,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“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.”
Abrar Al-Anany 18 and Menatalla Moustafa 18, both students at Mansoura University and Yousra Elkhateeb, 21, a recent graduate, were arrested on 12 November 2013 after clashes erupted on the university campus between supporters and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been held at Mansoura’s Public Prison ever since, where they are each allowed only a weekly five-minute visit with their families.
The clashes, which broke out during a protest held by student supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, lasted more than five hours and left at least 70 people injured. After university security tried and failed to take control of the situation the university president called state security forces to intervene. They then entered the university campus with armoured vehicles and shot tear gas to disperse the students. At least 23 students were arrested, including the three women.
“Students who have been involved in violent acts should be dealt in accordance with the law and in line with Egypt’s human rights obligations. Students under the age of 18 must be treated according to juvenile justice rules,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
The Ministry of Interior did not allow the two students to have their books to study inside the prison and they were prevented from taking the end-of-semester exams.
The women are charged with belonging to a banned organization using “terrorist” methods – a charge regularly used by the authorities against those perceived to support the Muslim Brotherhood. They are also charged with protesting without permission under Egypt’s restrictive new protest law as well as charges of thuggery, attacking security forces and destroying public property.
According to witnesses and the women’s lawyers, they were not involved in the clashes. The women had peacefully taken part in protests earlier but sought safety in a room at the university’s faculty of pharmacy when violence broke out.
Amnesty International has seen a copy of a letter from the security department at Mansoura University to the public prosecutor stating that the women did not take part in the violence and asking for their release.
“The authorities seem determined to punish anyone who expresses dissent, irrespective of facts,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The Egyptian authorities must stop treating peaceful protesters like criminals. The relentless crackdown on demonstrations, freedom of expression and independent reporting must end.”
Since the beginning of the academic year in September 2013, 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 2013 lasted more than five hours and left at least 70 people injured. The security forces fired tear gas from outside the university to disperse students inside. Later they entered the university grounds after the university’s president had asked for them to intervene to end the violence.
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 2013. 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.
A new protest law restricting the right to public assembly signed by interim President Adly Mansour on 24 November 2013, fails to meet international standards. It gives the Interior Ministry wide discretionary powers over protests including the use of firearms against peaceful protesters. Protesters convicted of breaking the law can face up to five years in prison and fines of LE100,000 (USD$14,513).