Egypt try policeman over death of female protester

2015-03-18 06:33
Egyptian security forces arrest a protester during clashes near Tahrir square, where an opposition rally has been called for to voice rejection of President Morsi's seizure of near absolute powers, in Cairo, Egypt.(Khalil Hamra, AP)

Egyptian security forces arrest a protester during clashes near Tahrir square, where an opposition rally has been called for to voice rejection of President Morsi's seizure of near absolute powers, in Cairo, Egypt.(Khalil Hamra, AP)

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Cairo - Egypt's state prosecutor referred on Tuesday a police officer to trial for allegedly shooting dead a leftist female protester during a peaceful rally in central Cairo.

The death of Shaima al-Sabbagh, which was partly captured on film, prompted President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to publicly demand the perpetrator be brought to justice.

She suffered the fatal wounds as police dispersed a small march of leftists on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the 25 January uprising.

The marchers had been carrying a wreath to a monument commemorating the deaths of protesters during the revolt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.

The police officer, who was not named by the prosecution, will stand trial before a criminal court.

It is the first time a policeman has been referred to trial for allegedly killing someone during a protest since the military's overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, a rights researcher told AFP.

Police have been accused of killing hundreds of mostly Islamist protesters since Morsi's ouster, including about 700 in one day in August 2013 when police dispersed a Cairo protest camp.

About 10 policemen also died in those clashes.

A court had sentenced an officer to 10 years in prison for the deaths of 37 detainees arrested at a pro-Morsi protest who suffocated from tear gas inside a police truck, although an appeals court overturned that verdict.

No precedent

Other policemen have been tried for the deaths of civilians, including an officer who shot dead a detainee in a police station.

"This is the first officer to be tried for killing a civilian in the context of a protest," said Karim Ennarah, a police and criminal justice researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Sabbagh's death, a day after another female protester was shot dead during a protest in Alexandria, was swiftly condemned by the government.

But the killing of the other female protester, an Islamist, received little attention.

Sabbagh's Socialist Popular Alliance, a small leftist party, was among the groups that opposed Morsi's divisive year in power before turning against his successor Sisi over a heavy-handed crackdown.

'Weak charges'

The prosecutor said an investigation had found the officer shot dead Sabbagh with birdshot, which police often use in crowd control.

The ammunition can be lethal at close quarters.

Police had denied involvement in Sabbagh's death, suggesting the birdshot that perforated her chest was not police-issued.

The prosecutor also referred protesters who had taken part in the march to trial for violating a law that bans all but police-sanctioned demonstrations.

The charges against the police officer exclude murder or manslaughter. He is instead charged with "battery that led to death" and "deliberately" wounding other protesters.

Ennarah criticised the charges, which he said were "weak".

"When the prosecution can't get away from pressing charges [against policemen], when the abuse is very flagrant and well documented, they press weak charges," Ennarah said.

'Poisonous cycle'

New York-based Human Rights Watch said it hoped that the case "helps to bring an end to the poisonous cycle of impunity for police violence" since the 2011 uprising.

But it expressed concern that the charges the policeman faces could carry similar prison terms for those at the protest alongside Sabbagh.

This, it said, "suggests a false and worrying equivalence between a peaceful protest and a fatal shooting".

Dozens of policemen were tried for protester deaths after the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, which had been partly fuelled by police abuses.

Most have been acquitted, including the former police chief and other commanders who stood trial with Mubarak.

The charges against Mubarak himself were dismissed by the court.

Read more on:    mohammed morsi  |  hosni mubarak  |  egypt

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