CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Saturday acquitted 17 witnesses who had been facing criminal charges after some of them came forward to testify about the apparent police killing of an unarmed poet and activist in January, lawyers for the defendants said.
The group had seen riot police officers violently disperse a peaceful march on Jan. 24, including by firing birdshot.
The poet, Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, 31, was fatally wounded as she participated in the march. Her dying moments were captured by photographers and widely circulated in Egypt and around the world, highlighting what human rights advocates say is a quotidian resort to brutality by Egypt’s security services.
In April, prosecutors drew even more attention to Ms. Sabbagh’s killing by charging the witnesses with illegally protesting. They included bystanders who happened to be near the march and a doctor who treated Ms. Sabbagh.
Eleven of the witnesses had previously come forward to the police and agreed to testify, defense lawyers said.
The charges, along with the unexpected acquittal, underscored the increasingly capricious nature of Egypt’s justice system under the military-backed government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Courts have emerged as a critical ally in a crackdown on dissent, with judges sentencing thousands of government opponents to jail terms.
At the same time, zealous prosecutions and enthusiastic sentencing by some judges has at times served as source of embarrassment to Mr. Sisi’s government, which has faced international criticism for sentencing hundreds of people to death.
The notoriety of the case was probably a factor in the acquittals on Saturday, said Sayed Abou el-Ela, a lawyer and member of the Socialist Popular Alliance who appeared in photographs with Ms. Sabbagh, holding her after she was struck by the police birdshot.
“The whole world saw it was a crime, a hideous crime,” he said. “The media witnessed this and showed it from the first moment.
“We should not suppose that this is justice, or change.”
Ali Soliman, who was coordinating the defense for the witnesses, said prosecutors could appeal the acquittals, although that was unlikely. Prosecutors have also charged a police officer with “battery causing death,” a form of manslaughter, in connection with Ms. Sabbagh’s killing.
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(via NY Times)