On the morning of 11 June, Egyptians were ordinarily following news about the trial of Central Security Forces officer Yassin Salah in the case of activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s death.
But for lawyers and journalists present at the Police Academy, where the Cairo Criminal Court held the trial, it had become almost undisputable that a verdict was going to be issued.
The speculations revolved around the sentence the judge was going to give, especially since Judge Mostafa Abdullah had a reputation for doing the unexpected. Abdullah had previously acquitted suspects in the unfortunate attacks on the 25 January Revolution protesters in Tahrir Square, also known as the “Camels’ case.”
Al-Sabbagh’s family had arrived from their hometown in Alexandria at 9am, and waited for three hours for the court judges to arrive. The optimism for a fair trial had started to fade, a feeling that gradually took over Al-Sabbagh’s supporters throughout the five-hour trial session.
The judge opened the session at noon. The court began by hearing the testimonies of three photojournalists who were present at the crime scene, and whose pictures and video footage were used as evidence against Salah.
This was the third time they testified following the defence’s requests. Defence lawyer Gameel Saeed was hoping to prove that they had not actually seen Salah shooting Al-Sabbagh, a claim they had not made in the first place. They had spoken about their locations during the incidents, the presence of security forces and the direction from which the bullets came.
This case’s major pillars relied on the prosecution’s intensified investigations and the efforts of reporters and photojournalists on the ground, without whom crucial evidence would not have been found.
Prosecution statement incriminates Salah
“Security forces are responsible for the protection of people’s lives, not their bloodshed and endangering their physical safety. Al-Sabbagh died because those who vowed to protect her life decided not to,” the prosecutor said.
He continued by accounting what he described as “absolute facts and evidence”, according to the logical development of events. The facts were that the march did not exceed 30 people, with whom security forces immediately dealt using tear gas and birdshots and killing Al-Sabbagh.
The prosecution claimed that despite the defendant’s initial denial, intensive examinations and analysis of video footages, assisted by experts from the Ministry of Communications, provided definite evidence against him. Additionally, the prosecution relied on the testimony of a taxi driver who appeared in the video and was brought in for questioning.
The prosecution based its accusations on the Forensic Medicine Authority’s report which asserted that the cause of death was birdshots, in addition to criminologists and experts who established that birdshots could be loaded into rifles used for tear gas bombs.
Their report, along with investigations by gun and distance experts led the prosecution to make its final claim, that Salah intentionally and voluntarily loaded his rifle, shot, and killed Al-Sabbagh.
The video that solved the mystery
The reason for which Salah was selected amongst the other masked security forces present at the scene, was a video taken by one of the photographers. This showed him loading his riffle with birdshots, shooting, with his aide then replacing the rifles after the shooting.
Journalists in court told Daily News Egypt that the video was taken by coincidence, because the photographer was standing in the camp of the security forces – who usually control what is being filmed – and that he had lowered his camera in discreet attempts to catch the maximum footage possible.
The video was not a new discovery, but the details in it were a turning point in the case. In a previous session, the judge had insisted on asking Salah if he was the man in the video shooting people, to which Salah finally replied “yes”.
Human rights lawyers
Ali Soliman, a member of the civil rights lawyers’ team assisting Al-Sabbagh’s family, demanded that the court consider charging the officer with intention and premeditation to do harm. “On 24 January at 3:30pm, Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh was betrayed and shot from the back,” he said.
Salem slammed the Ministry of Interior’s immediate denial of the accusations following her death and the cover up on police brutality.
“They declared him innocent before there was even a case, there was negligence in handing him in, and everyone who tried to save her on that day was arrested before being able to,” Ali continued.
The judge also heard lawyer Amir Salem, who spoke of the event itself in relation to the Protest Law and the forceful security dispersal. The law states that authorities need to be notified about public assemblies in advance.
“The members of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP) had made it public that on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, they were going to march with flowers in commemoration of the youth who died then. That’s what moved Al-Sabbagh out of Alexandria on that day,” Salem said. “And it is not like national security and other state informants were not watching the party’s political bureau meetings.”
Islam Osama, a photojournalist from Al-Youm Al-Sabaanews website, testified earlier that he had only heard police cars sirens in the area, but that there were no verbal warnings via microphones before the decision to disperse the march – as stated by the Protest Law.
Salem said the entire situation lasted for less than five minutes, and that police started shooting before a senior party member who had tried negotiating with CSF commander Rabie El-Sawy had reached his group to ask them to leave, after they were denied passage.
Defence pleads not guilty and uses fabricated videos
Lawyers Gameel Saeed and Essam El-Batawy presented two videos to the court, which the judge played during the trial session. The first one was proven to be fabricated, through the insertion of a picture showing an armed protester. The video was broadcasted by controversial TV host Ahmed Moussa, who was convicted for defamation.
The picture was taken several days earlier in another location, and was from a protest that ended with clashes with security forces. The defence claimed the video was not examined by the prosecution.
The prosecution responded by stating that official reports confirmed the video was not genuine. The defence also stated that Salah had no intentions to kill, because he did not know of the protest ahead of time, and that he had no personal conflicts with SPAP members.
“Furthermore, SPAP members violated the Protest Law and eyewitnesses against Salah were all among those protesters and therefore cannot be credible,” Saeed claimed.
In fact, SPAP members were acquitted from protest charges, and eyewitnesses included non-party members and non-participants in the march, whom the police counted as suspects in the case, amid wide public outrage.
Another video was presented to the judge. El-Batawy told the judge they had received the video by a “well-doer”. Again, the prosecution commented by saying the video had been examined and dismissed, as its source was unknown and its authenticity in doubt.
The verdict: A surprise to all, most of all the defence
Before halting the session to issue the verdict, the judge ordered Salah to step out of the cage. Salah was dressed in civilian clothing, and his family and friends were allowed to see him and speak to him inside and outside the case during breaks.
“We did not carry birdshots. We were there to secure the place not to kill people. It is our job and besides my file would prove that I have never committed any violations during my service,” Salah told the judge.
Daily News Egypt found out after the trial that at this particular moment, hopes for the officers’ conviction were lost. Right before the judge issued the verdict, the defendant’s lawyer was also heard saying: “It’s a hopeless case.”
According to the Penal Code, anybody who deliberately hits somebody or insists on harming, without having the intention to kill but with the person dying as a result of this action, should be sentenced to harsh prison sentence.
This is how Salah was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment after only four trial sessions. In Arabic, he has been given what has been termed as “severe prison”, which is the term for “prison with hard labour”. It also means that the defendant’s years in prison will be counted as a full 12 months per year, and not the usual 10 months in regular prison year terms.