22 convicted for food rioting in Egypt’s ‘Mahalla 49’ case

An Egyptian emergency court has sentenced 22 people to jail for participating in violent food riots in April this year in Egypt’s Nile Delta city of Mahalla. The uprising was largely publicized by a group of Egyptian Facebook activists and bloggers who gathered nearly 80,000 people in support for a general strike in protest of rising commodity prices and soaring wages.
mahalla case
Mothers of the accused weep after criminal sentences were handed down for 22 people sentenced in the Mahalla 49 case. ©Sarah Carr

BEIRUT, December 17, 2008 (MENASSAT)-  Egypt's Tanta Emergency State Security Court sentenced 22 of 49 defendants on December 15 to varying jail terms for taking part in demonstrations last April 6 in which thousands of industrial workers in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla Al-Kubra took to the streets to protest high food prices and low wages.

The 22 who were sentenced were given jail terms of three to five years for "looting, assaulting police officers and the possession of dangerous materials," while the remaining 27 defendants in the high profile case were freed of charges, Judge Alsayyed Abdel-Maaboud told AP.

During the April riots,  demonstrators tore down bill boards of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and clashed with state security troops, who quashed the uprising with tear gas and live ammunition killing three, among them a teenage boy.

Drama in the court

Sources at the trial day say the trial for the group who became known in Egypt as the Mahalla 49 was tumultuous with defendants screaming at the judge in protest when the verdicts were read out. Some defendants and their relatives even fainted, eyewitnesses in the courtroom told reporters.

Five of those sentenced were sentenced in absentia including 58-year-old Fawzeya Hafez El Shinnawy who was convicted for holding a Molotov cocktail.

Sarah Carr, a journalist with the Egyptian independent Daily News Egypt was inside the court room.

She told MENASSAT in an email conversation that there was a heavy media presence in the court and that security measures were less tight than previously.

According to Carr, families of the defendants were prohibited from entering the courtroom.

Outside the court a group of protesters gathered, shouting anti-government slogans and denouncing President Mubarak.

“About 40 protesters and family members of the defendants were chanting ‘rotten government’ and ‘revolution’,” Carr said.

The sentences handed down by Tanta State Security Court on Monday cannot be appealed and can only be reversed by President Hosni Mubarak himself.

Rights groups slammed the verdict and called for a retrial in ordinary courts "to guarantee all their legal rights."

The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) denounced "the ongoing phenomenon of civilians being tried by military and state security tribunals. This is a clear violation of the universal right to face ordinary justice."

Facebook and blogging activism

Media coverage of the rising commodity prices and soaring wages in Egypt surged after a group of activists rallied massive support on Facebook, calling for nation-wide strikes on April 6 in solidarity with Egypt’s industrial workers; a cause that attracted more than 70,000 Facebook members.

Esraa Abdel Fattah, the 27-year old activist who originally started the group was detained along with several other Egyptian bloggers ahead of the planned rally in April. Abdel Fattah was later released after her mother made a personal appeal to the Egyptian Interior Minister, Habib Al-Adli.

In Mahalla, blogger Kareem el-Beheiri and an activist from the Textile Workers’ League, Kamal el-Fayoumi, were arrested and taken into custody.

Egypt's Facebook activists pushed for a May 4 strike in Egypt on President Mubarak's 80th birthday. Despite the groups claims to a membership base of over 150,000  that demonstration was largely undercut by Mubarak who promised new reforms and warned protesters of grave repercussions.