Twelve* men accused of participating in mob sexual assaults in Cairo’s Tahrir Square stood in court on Wednesday in the first session of a trial that women’s rights defenders say is important for breaking down impunity in cases of violence against women in Egypt.
Standing with their backs turned to the court, the men denied the charges that include attempted murder, sexually assaulting women with sharp objects, and violent theft. Some face up to life in prison, if found guilty.
The trial was adjourned to allow the defense team time to study the case. The next hearing is scheduled for June 29.
The eight women who filed the charges were attacked in three separate incidents in the Square: On January 25, 2013, during the second anniversary of the uprising that saw the downfall of former president Hosni Mubarak; on June 3, 2014, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was announced as winner of the presidential race, and on June 8, the night of Sisi’s swearing-in ceremony, when thousands gathered in the Square to celebrate.
The prosecution read out the women’s full names in court, though Mada Masr will be refraining from using them at the request of their lawyers, the women and their families.
The June 3 incident involved a 42-year-old woman, who was stripped naked and violently attacked by mobs of men, leaving her backside bloodied and bruised. She was in the Square with her daughter. The attack was recorded and uploaded on a YouTube video that went viral and sent shockwaves through society.
President Sisi bought her a bouquet of red flowers and visited her in a military hospital, where she is still recovering from injuries sustained to her genitalia and hot water burns on 40 percent of her body, her lawyer said. It may have been the first visit by an Egyptian president to a civilian.
Violence against women in Egypt has been a growing problem, particularly since the 2011 uprising, when mass protests and women’s public participation in them increased.
There have been over 250 documented cases of mob attacks against women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the main site of mass gatherings, and nearby vicinities between November 2012 and January 2014, according to a joint report by rights groups.
“This trial is a very good step on the part of the authorities to show they are prosecuting people for acts of harassment and assault, particularly the gruesome mass assaults,” said Rothna Begum, women’s rights researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, by telephone on Wednesday.
“It shows there is some form of political will to tackle the issue of harassment, but what we need to see is violence against women in all its forms taken seriously,” the London-based researcher said.
Daily sexual harassment, such as ogling and making suggestive remarks, is a common experience for women in Egypt. A United Nations study published in 2013 found that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women experienced some form of sexual harassment, with touching being the most common manifestation, followed by verbal harassment.
One of the sexual assault survivors sat in court crying each time the accused denied the charges. She was too upset to comment. The father of another survivor, who wasn’t present in court, was also too emotional to talk.
A 21-year-old student attended the session with her 62-year-old grandmother with whom she was attacked, and her mother. They all wore black.
“I’m here to get my rights,” she said, with her eyes covered by black sunglasses.
Her and her grandmother were attacked on the night of June 8 as they were trying to leave the crowded square after a night of celebrating Sisi’s win. All of a sudden, she said, hundreds of men crowded around them and began sexually assaulting the 21-year-old with their hands, while they violently attacked the grandmother to steal her bag.
“They did it to ruin people’s happiness at the election of Sisi,” the student said. “Most of those who elected him were women.”
The student said she was able to identify three of the perpetrators, who have been arrested and are standing trial.
The mother and father of another survivor, a university student, attended the court session on behalf of their daughter, who is still recovering from injuries sustained to her eyes after she was beaten in the course of a mob assault.
“I hope the judiciary brings us our rights. We want retribution,” said her father, Michel. “The trial has brought back all the memories from that night. I started to forget a bit last week, but it’s made me remember the torture we’ve been living through since June 8.”
She was also able to identify three of the perpetrators, he said.
The university student, who is studying tourism and hotels, didn’t attend the court session because she is afraid of the press and her friends identifying her, Michel said.
“They’re not human beings,” he added. “It was an organized attack to scare women from going to protests, especially the women who voted for Sisi.”
Soheir, the wife of one of the accused, said her husband wasn’t even in the square on January 25, 2013, when he is alleged to have taken part in a mob assault. He was requested to appear in front of the prosecution 18 months after the incident, she told Mada Masr. “This is oppression,” said the woman from Cairo’s working class neighborhood Shubra al-Kheima.
The trial is also significant because “it will continue the momentum on talks about sexual assaults and gang rape, which is one of the issues we are trying to highlight,” said Mozn Hassan, executive director of the Cairo-based non-governmental organization Nazra for Feminist Studies. “This is not a sexual harassment case.”
A few days before Sisi’s inauguration, interim president Adly Mansour passed a law that defined sexual harassment, a term that had not been present in the Egyptian penal code. Hassan says that this law is insufficient to deal with the Tahrir Square cases.
The Egyptian penal code needs to develop its definition of rape, which is limited to penetration of a woman’s vagina by a penis, and excludes rape with sharp objects, anal rape and oral rape, Hassan said.
Mona Eltahawy, a journalist and advocate of women’s rights in the Arab world, says she realizes the significance of the case but it also raises concerns.
“It seems to be part of this new face that the Egyptian regime is trying to put on, that it cares about women’s safety, and is serious about fighting sexual violence,” she told Mada Masr.
“But, our criminal justice system isn’t known for providing any kind of justice. And we have a brutal police force. So this places me in a dilemma,” the 46-year-old Egyptian American said.
Eltahawy was arrested while reporting on protests near Tahrir Square in November 2011 and accused the police of sexual assaulting her and fracturing her arms.
“The men who seem to have sparked this new found seriousness have committed grave injustices against women, including Sisi,” Eltahawy said.
As head of military intelligence in 2011, Sisi defended the military’s use of virginity tests on female protesters who were arrested from Tahrir Square to safeguard the military against accusations of rape. The practice has been condemned by rights groups.
“Sisi himself represents two sides of the coin of dilemma: An Egyptian society that is misogynistic, but one that has suddenly found that it is important to be concerned about sexual violence,” she said.
*This story originally read that ‘eleven’ men appeared in court and has since been altered to reflect the correct number — twelve.