Jailed Egyptian protesters find hope in call for retrials

McClatchy NewspapersApril 15, 2011 

CAIRO — Speaking from his prison cell Friday, Waleed Samy Saad said he still hasn't seen his mother's videotaped plea that persuaded Egypt's ruling military council to announce that it would revisit the convictions of dozens of protesters who were arrested en masse March 9 in downtown Cairo.

Hours after the footage of Saad's tearful mother appeared on the website of a local newspaper, the military announced on its official Facebook page Thursday that it would grant her wish and order a retrial. The statement added that the "council will be revising the statuses of all the youth prosecuted and sentenced recently" — the latest in a series of concessions that the military has made recently in an apparent effort to improve its deteriorating image among pro-democracy advocates.

"My poor mother," Saad said, speaking to McClatchy by telephone from the prison. "She felt she had to do something."

In the past month, Egyptian activists have compiled a chilling list of abuse and torture complaints against soldiers who until recently were regarded as heroes of the revolution for siding with the people against their commander in chief, the deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Now, the military is stretched thin as it struggles to restore order while meeting the protesters' demands for progress on revolutionary goals toward a more democratic Egypt.

It took threats of large-scale, disruptive demonstrations for the military to haul in Mubarak, his wife and sons for questioning this week in connection with corruption and the use of lethal force against protesters. Meanwhile, human rights activists say, hundreds of young revolutionaries such as the March 9 group have received three-year prison terms for convictions on the military's catchall charge of "thuggery."

"The latest announcement by the military council was a signal. Yes, it might give us some hope, but we have to wait and see," said Heba Morayef of the Cairo office of Human Rights Watch, which has lobbied for the release of the March 9 group.

"I don't see any real change in the attitude of the armed forces in general. They still deny violence that was documented by the media and human rights organizations," Morayef said.

Saad said the military's quick and personal response to his mother had lifted the spirits of the March 9 detainees, who are outraged that they're in the same prison as Mubarak's two sons and other leaders of the regime they'd helped to overthrow.

"I now have some hope. I know that if I am put to a fair and real investigation, I will be found not guilty. I believe that because I committed no crime," Saad said. "I was in the square for almost two weeks before I was arrested. I was calling for freedom and justice."

Saad, 29, owns a computer shop he opened with seed money from the Young Graduates Project, a Mubarak administration initiative to help young entrepreneurs open small businesses. When anti-government demonstrations began on Jan. 25, however, Saad quickly joined millions of other Egyptians calling for the fall of a regime they considered corrupt and incapable of reform.

Saad was among 173 protesters, including 17 women, who were rounded up from Tahrir Square on March 9, a chaotic night that activists say ended with the military's torture of protesters during their detention in the famed Egyptian Museum.

The military has denied that soldiers used excessive force that night.

"What happened to us in the museum is indescribably terrible. It was a torture party," said Mansour Adly, 29, another March 9 detainee who was reached by phone in prison. "Military personnel were electrocuting us. There were more than 80 soldiers randomly kicking and punching anyone who was brought in."

After speedy military trials, the 17 women were sentenced to one year each of probation. Of the other detainees, 22 were acquitted, and the rest — including Saad and Adly — were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to five years.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Hannah Allam contributed to this story from Cairo.)

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