http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2013/12/11/Release-of-Alexandria-girls-sparks-more-controversy.html

An Egyptian Misdemeanor Court of Appeals ordered the release on Dec. 7 of 21 female Islamist protestors whose jail sentences had stirred much controversy.

The 14 adults, who had each received 11 years and one month in jail, were handed a one-year suspended sentence.

The remaining seven minors, who were to be incarcerated in juvenile detention centers until the age of 18, are to be put on probation for three months.

The defendants, now known as the Alexandria Girls, were charged with sabotage, rioting and possession of weapons.

Even though the new verdict was greeted with considerable relief, it has caused nearly as much controversy as that triggered by the initial sentence, as questions are raised about the corresponding political messages.

Human rights organizations were the first to condemn the sentences as harsh and disproportionate.

Violating rights

The National Council for Motherhood and Childhood found the verdict to have flagrantly violated women’s right to protest, and demanded the immediate release of the 21 girls.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, and the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, took the same stand.

The council and three organizations issued a joint statement questioning the independence of the judiciary, which is constantly subjected to “pressure by governmental authorities to best serve their needs.”

The statement added that “the country is in dire need of ending the use of the judiciary as a political tool and a weapon against the government’s political opponents.”

It accused the authorities of bringing back the police state that existed prior to the 2011 revolution.

For Azza al-Ashmawi, secretary general of the National Council for Motherhood and Childhood, the verdict meant that “no one will be safe from their iron fist.”

The fate of the girls is an example of how the government plans to “crush opposition,” she added.

Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, attributed the verdict to the girls’ affiliation rather than an actual crime committed.

“The government is now arresting and accusing anyone who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, exactly as [former President Mohammad] Mursi did with his opponents,” he said.

‘Same old story’

The “same old story” is being repeated, and nothing has changed since the end of Islamist rule, Amin added.

Under the title “Egypt must immediately and unconditionally release women protesters,” an Amnesty International report condemned the Egyptian state for its “determination to punish dissent.”

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa, called the girls “prisoners of conscience” who had to be freed immediately.

“Instead of imprisoning peaceful protesters, authorities should be ensuring prompt, independent and impartial investigations into police abuse of protesters, reining in security forces, and upholding the right to freedom of peaceful assembly,” she said.

The domestic and international outrage sparked by the verdict was followed by a statement issued by the office of interim President Adly Mansour, and circulated to the press by his advisor for women’s affairs Sekina Fouad, in which the president pledged to intervene in the case only after all the legal procedures take their due course.

Mansour “will issue a full pardon to the Alexandria females after the final judicial process is completed,” Fouad said, adding that the case would still have to go through the courts of appeals and cassation.

While this statement was seen as an attempt to contain the crisis, it raised more questions about the independence of the judiciary and the president’s powers.

For Judge Ashraf Nada, head of the Cairo Court of Appeals, Mansour did not have the right to pardon the girls since they did not just violate the law that regulates protests.

“Those girls were arrested because they committed criminal offences, and they have to be punished accordingly,” Nada said in a TV interview.

The penal code, under which the girls were tried, allows the arrest of “terrorists” even if they did not engage in protests, the judge added, calling for the Brotherhood to be dealt with as “a terrorist group.”

According to the defense team, the girls should not have been arrested in the first place, since there was no evidence against them.

Ahmed al-Hamrawy, one of the lawyers, lashed out at the authorities for involving women in their attempts to eliminate opposition, a practice that, he said, had not existed before the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.

“Even in Mubarak’s era there were morals. Egypt’s women and girls were a red line,” he told the court.

Hamrawy, however, was not unhappy with the new verdict. “The sentence is satisfying to a degree, and it has a humanitarian aspect,” he said, adding that the verdict will still be appealed until the 14 adults are fully acquitted.

A statement issued by the defense team, however, slammed the new verdict because “the girls are still guilty before the law and their future can be compromised.”

Justice, the statement added, will only be served when the girls are declared innocent of all charges against them.

The new verdict has led to debate as to whether the interim government is starting to soften its stance towards Islamists.

Kristen Chick, Cairo correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, said it is unlikely that other pro-Mursi supporters would be treated with the same leniency.

The girls’ case in particular gained the sympathy of most Egyptians, not only Islamists, due to the harshness of the sentences and the age and gender of the defendants, she added.

“Even Egyptians who agree with government claims that many Muslim Brotherhood protesters are terrorists found it hard to reconcile this rhetoric with the sight of teenagers who appeared in court fresh-faced, smiling, and yesterday, even holding pink roses,” Chick said.

Journalist and TV anchor Emad Adib said the Brotherhood “is the only group that is not happy about the release of the Alexandria girls. The girls were a card they played, and now this card is burnt.”