Egypt’s highest appeals court on Wednesday upheld a five-year prison sentence for an iconic figure of the country’s pro-democracy movement convicted for taking part in a peaceful demonstration in 2013.
The decision confirmed a prior verdict by a criminal court that ruled Alaa Abdel-Fattah had protested illegally, endangered the public interest, and stolen a police radio. Street protests have been effectively banned in Egypt.
Activists took to social media to decry the decision, the latest in an unprecedented crackdown on dissent under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former general who led the military overthrow of his elected but divisive Islamist predecessor in 2013. Thousands have been imprisoned, with some rights advocates putting the number as high as 60,000.
“I’m sorry. Our hearts are with everyone who’s been following us and rooting for Alaa and justice,” said Abdel-Fattah’s aunt, Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist and rights advocate.
An outspoken blogger, Abdel-Fattah has been in and out of prison in the years since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. A software engineer by profession, he also campaigned against the policies of the military council that ruled Egypt for nearly 17 months following Mubarak’s ouster.
He also opposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and el-Sissi, who led Morsi’s overthrow in 2013. Abdel-Fattah now has around a year-and-a-half remaining in his sentence, although he also faces another sentencing in December over accusations he insulted the judiciary.
The Nov. 26, 2013 demonstration that led to his conviction was in protest of a clause allowing military trials for civilians in the draft of a new constitution, which was later adopted.
The decision came as el-Sissi participated for a fourth day in a much-criticized youth conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Activists say the idea that el-Sissi, who has spoken to the conference’s sessions more than any single other participant, genuinely seeks dialogue with the youth is hypocritical given that so many of them are jailed on murky or nonexistent charges.
Later in the day, a court postponed a session to Jan. 3 that was to rule on an appeal against obscenity charges against a prominent rights lawyer who is running for president in next year’s elections.
If the conviction of Khaled Ali, widely seen as politically motivated, is upheld, it would likely make him ineligible to run against el-Sissi. His candidacy is unlikely to seriously challenge the campaign of the incumbent general-turned-president but will test his popularity at a time of deep economic hardships and a relentless crackdown on dissent and Islamic militants.