An Egyptian court sentenced seven men to life in prison on Wednesday for sexual assaults on women during public rallies in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square. They are the first such heavy sentences since the government vowed to crack down on sexual violence.
Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, but assaults have become more frequent and brutal since the 2011 overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, with frenzied mobs targeting women who take part in political gatherings.
The charges stemmed from four different incidents of sexual assault this year and last year, including during celebrations of the inauguration of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in June. Videos of the brutal attacks posted online caused a public outcry, and pushed the new leader to order a crackdown on perpetrators. A week later, 13 suspects were sent to trial in a speedy referral aimed at sending a message of deterrence.
"This is the first verdict in a case of sexual assault in the history of this country," said Mozn Hassan, director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, which provides legal representation for victims. "This could open the door for ending impunity in such cases."
Judge Mohammed el-Fiqqi sentenced the seven men to life in prison, with four of them receiving multiple life sentences. An eighth defendant received two 20-year jail sentences and a ninth received a single 20-year sentence.
Scenes of women being attacked by frenzied mobs have sullied political rallies in the square made famous by the revolt that toppled Mubarak. Activists have organized volunteer groups to protect women, and many of the volunteers have also come under attack.
The various charges against the defendants ranged from attempted rape to attempted murder.
Hassan said three of the assaults occurred in different parts of Tahrir Square on June 8, the day of el-Sissi's inauguration. In each of the June 8 attacks, women said the mob encircled them, used sharp objects to tear their clothes off — in some cases leading to vaginal and breast wounds — and beat them with belts.
Hassan said another 10 cases from that day have not yet been sent to trial, including one in which a woman required 13 stitches in her vagina. Two other women suffered from severe burns after their attackers pushed them into vats of boiling water set up on tea-maker stalls.
For the case ruled upon Wednesday, the women were asked before the trial to identify the attackers from a police lineup. Some of the women passed out while others went into fits of hysteria upon seeing the suspects. One woman suffered temporary paralysis.