An Egyptian court handed seven men life sentences today for sexually assaulting women in Tahrir Square during mass demonstrations and celebrations.
The rulings are the first of their kind since new legislation was introduced in June to crack down on the country's epidemic of sexual harassment and violence. They relate to four separate attacks which happened in 2013 and 2014, including during celebrations marking President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s election victory on June 3.
The men, along with two teenagers who received one and two 20-year sentences respectively, were charged with offences including attempted rape, kidnapping, assault, torture, and attempted murder, the Associated Press reported.
Sexual harassment and assault is a huge problem in Egypt. About 99 percent of women in the country have faced it in some form or another — from cat calling to rape — according to United Nations figures released in April 2013. Activists say incidents soared in the turmoil that followed the ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The demonstrations held in Tahrir since then have seen horrifying levels of sexual violence, some of which is documented in Human Rights Watch report published in July 2013. In some cases, mobs of men took advantage of the lack of security forces present at these gatherings to harass, assault and even gang-rape women with impunity.
However, authorities have not previously addressed these attacks. The International Federation for Human Rights documented more than 250 cases of women being attacked by groups of men and boys near Tahrir Square between November 2012 and July 2013. Not one of these incidents, it said, resulted in a prosecution.
Despite the scale of the problem, sexual harassment was not formerly criminalized in Egypt until last month, when outgoing acting president Adly Mansour signed new legislation into law which will hit offenders with prison terms of between six months and five years.
Some activists were skeptical that it would make any difference, commenting that authorities are ill-equipped and disinclined to help. All too often, they said, the security forces are harassers themselves. Egyptian women previously told VICE News that they had been verbally abused by uniformed men, while the forced "virginity tests" administered by the security forces to women in detention are apparently being employed once again.
Others voiced doubts that the judiciary would be willing to give proper sentences to offenders. When the new law was launched, Fatma Khafagy, director ombudswoman for gender equality at Egypt’s National Council for Women, expressed concerns over requirements that the victim must bring the harasser to a police station themselves and then provide at least two eye-witnesses.
The issue was brought into the spotlight again recently when a number of women were sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square during celebrations for Sisi's inauguration. Graphic videos described as showing the attacks and their aftermath were widely circulated via social media. Seven men were subsequently arrested following one incident. Sisi went on to order the interior minister to combat the problem, although some of his opponents were once again skeptical of his intentions given his previous remarks in support of forced virginity tests.
These new sentences, however, may give some reason to hope that authorities are, finally, beginning to take the problem seriously.
Egyptian media reported several sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square on Sunday, June 8, during celebrations for Sisi's inauguration. A number of suspects were arrested following the attacks. This video was later posted on social media showing a woman who appears to be brutally attacked by a crowd of men.
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