CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Monday convicted a prominent human rights defender and lawyer for spreading false news and insulting a government authority, adding another name to a growing list of activists, journalists and dissidents the state has aggressively targeted and sought to silence for years.
The sentence imposed on the lawyer, Hossam Bahgat, was relatively modest, but the prosecution was only the latest chapter in a legal odyssey that brought him to ruin. It all started more than five years ago, when authorities opened an investigation into his activities and subjected him to an unlimited travel ban which he says crippled his career and plunged him into depression.
On Monday, Mr Bahgat was sentenced to jail and a fine of around $ 650 – a result that experts said seemed calculated to serve two purposes: a guilty verdict that would intimidate opponents of the government while simultaneously presenting a more reasonable face to the public abroad by not imprisoning them.
“It’s getting harder, it’s not getting easier,” Bahgat said as he walked out of the courthouse. “They think they can change the rhetoric and leave it all as it is. And so far it is working.
As the host of a major global climate summit next year, COP27, the country’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is showing signs of growing awareness of world opinion regarding human rights.
But despite appearing in a softer tone, the reality on the ground in Egypt remains grim for critics of his regime.
The conviction of Mr. Bahgat, who heads one of the last independent human rights groups in Egypt, follows a string of convictions with harsher sentences than he received.
In June, Ahmed Samir Santawy, an Egyptian researcher and graduate student in anthropology in Vienna, detained during a visit to Egypt and questioned about anti-government publications he had posted on social media, was sentenced to four years in prison for spreading false news.
And this month, five activists and politicians, including a former Member of Parliament, were sentenced to three to five years in prison, also for spreading fake news and using their social media accounts to undermine national security.
Further trials of other researchers, activists and bloggers are expected in the coming weeks.
Rights groups estimate that tens of thousands of dissidents incarcerated in recent years, many without trial, are still languishing in Egyptian prisons.
The continued trials and imprisonments of activists underscore the increasingly authoritarian leadership taken by the country under the leadership of Mr. el-Sisi, who became president in 2014.
“I see darkness,” said Mohamed Anwar Sadat, former head of the human rights committee in parliament, which recently played an informal mediating role between civil society groups and the state. “We thought the trial would put a better end to these cases and serve as a way out of the crisis, but we are in shock.”
Last year, Mr. Bahgat, founder and executive director of the Egyptian Human Rights Initiative, was on trial under a cybercrime law for a Twitter post accusing a government official who had chaired the electoral authority for overseeing a fraudulent parliamentary election. The official was a judge who had passed away.
Monday’s sentencing came shortly after Mr Sisi made several announcements that appeared to suggest the state would loosen its grip on political opposition and free speech.
In September, he said Egypt would honor all “its obligations to human rights and fundamental freedoms.” And in October, he declared the end of a four-year state of emergency that had given the government and its security forces sweeping powers to crush dissent and detain citizens.
The announcements had raised some hope in Egypt that the country could adopt a more tolerant approach that would allow civil society groups to operate without police harassment or the continued threat of detention. Skeptics, however, pointed to the introduction of other laws that strengthened the grip of the authoritarian government, and dismissed Mr Sisi’s assurances as hollow, made to fend off criticism from the West.
“This speech seemed to signal an opening, but the reality shows the opposite,” said Khaled Ali, a former politician and lawyer who represents some of the activists still on trial. “It’s a huge contradiction.
Tackling Mr Bahgat, critics said, is the latest evidence of a state unwilling to give up its efforts to crush free speech and political opposition, often in the name of maintaining order and stability in a conflict-ridden region. .
US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said there were “issues of concern” in Egypt ahead of bilateral talks that took place earlier this month.
“Making tangible and lasting improvements in human rights is also essential to strengthen our bilateral relations,” Blinken said, highlighting the issues he planned to discuss with his Egyptian counterpart at the meetings. First on the list, and before human rights, was regional stability.
Mr. Bahgat is still involved in a separate criminal case against a number of non-governmental organizations and dozens of their members whom authorities have accused of illegally receiving foreign funds. He was investigated in 2016 and has since been banned from travel and his assets have been frozen.
Ahead of Monday’s verdict, 46 human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, issued a statement calling on Egypt to “stop the harassment and persecution” of Mr. Bahgat.
“This represents the unprecedented state of oppression in which we live,” said Nasser Amin, former member of the National Human Rights Council. “There are no practical or realistic measures that indicate a real intention or desire to improve the human rights situation in Egypt. “