CAIRO — An Egyptian police officer was convicted Thursday of a form of manslaughter for killing a poet and activist by shooting her at close range with birdshot. The court sentenced the officer to 15 years in prison.
If the verdict is upheld on appeal, it will be a rare example of judicial punishment in Egypt for excessive police violence.
The killing of the poet and activist, Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, in January shocked and captivated Egyptians, because of her evident innocence of any crime or even aggression. She became the latest victim to galvanize public anger against abuses by the police.
Ms. Sabbagh was killed on the street during a small procession of left-leaning intellectuals trying to lay flowers in Tahrir Square in Cairo. It was on the day before the anniversary of the 2011 popular uprising that ultimately deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
The police began blasting the procession with tear gas and birdshot almost as soon as it formed. Photographs and videos recorded searing images of Ms. Sabbagh’s blood-streaked face as she died in the arms of a colleague.
Interior Ministry officials initially tried to deflect responsibility, arguing that the gunfire that killed her had not come from the police but from someone else. Prosecutors called in one of Ms. Sabbagh’s colleagues for questioning, apparently pursuing the unlikely hypothesis that the colleague might have surreptitiously shot her with a gun hidden in his coat.
Witnesses came forward to describe what had happened, including a prominent rights lawyer, Azza Soliman, who was eating lunch at a cafe across the street when the shooting took place. But prosecutors treated the witnesses as criminals. They were charged with participating in a public demonstration without permission, an offense that can be punishable by several years in prison under a law enacted after the military takeover two years ago. The cases are unresolved.
Popular outrage over Ms. Sabbagh’s death was so widespread that even President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general who led the takeover, addressed the case publicly. He vowed not to let the episode tarnish the police force, and at the same time urged the interior minister to track down the killer.
Prosecutors then charged the officer in March with the crime of beating leading to death, which is akin to a charge of manslaughter. Hearings in the case were closed to reporters, and officials did not disclose the defendant’s name. He was identified in state media on Thursday, after his conviction, as First Lt. Yaseen Mohamed Hatem of the Central Security Force.
Amir Salem, a lawyer for Ms. Sabbagh’s family who attended the trial, said Lieutenant Hatem was 24 years old.
“Thank God for this verdict,” Mr. Salem said. He added that he was now seeking about $13,000 in compensation from the government for each of Ms. Sabbagh’s three closest family members — her husband, her mother and her son, Bilal, who was 5 years old when she was killed.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry declined to comment on the case.
Merna Thomas contributed reporting.
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(via NY Times)