CAIRO (Reuters) - Seven Egyptian men were jailed for life on Wednesday for attacking and sexually harassing women during rallies and celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The sentences were the longest since the president vowed to crack down on sexual assaults in June and the government criminalised sexual harassment, amid widespread criticism from activists and lawyers on its record on tackling such abuse.
Five men were jailed for life for attacking and harassing women during celebrations of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s inauguration in June.
Another defendant, aged 16, was jailed for 20 years and a 19-year-old was given two 20-year jail terms, though it was not immediately clear if they would run at the same time. All seven were convicted of sexual harassment, under the new law, and of attempted rape, attempted murder and torture.
One of the five men along with two other men were also sentenced to life on separate charges of attacking a woman as she celebrated the anniversary of the 2011 revolt that toppled autocratic president Hosni Mubarak.
A woman involved in one of the cases cried in relief in the courtroom after the verdicts were announced.
“This verdict is pure justice and the least that those people can get for the crimes they committed,” said Nashaat Agha, a lawyer for one of the victims.
The defendants in both cases - aged 16-49 - stood in a cage in the courtroom and shouted “injustice” after the verdicts were read out. Their relatives attacked journalists.
Sisi ordered the interior minister to combat sexual harassment after women were attacked as thousands gathered in the streets during his inauguration celebrations.
A video was posted on YouTube showing a naked woman with injuries on her hip being dragged through a crowd towards an ambulance. It triggered a public outcry and encouraged more victims to come forward.
Sexual assault was rampant at demonstrations during and after the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising and has been regularly reported at other large gatherings in Egypt.
“This ruling gives a strong message to all harassers that their actions are no longer tolerated or accepted ... But the ruling on the teenagers was a bit harsh and could have been reduced,” said prominent Egyptian activist and lawyer Gamal Eid.
Sisi has frequently spoken about the importance of women to society and called for an police officer who rescued a victim of sexual harassment to be honoured.
But rights campaigners have long said Egypt needs to take sexual harassment more seriously. One female television presenter on a private channel giggled when her colleague mentioned the harassment in Tahrir. The people were simply “happy”, she said.
Egypt passed a law in June punishing sexual harassment with at least six months in jail or fines of at least 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($420). Judicial sources said the arrests of those convicted on Wednesday were made under the new law.
Sexual harassment, high rates of female genital cutting and a surge in violence after the Arab Spring uprisings have made Egypt the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey showed late last year.
Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Andrew Heavens