Back to the Tiran and Sanafir prisoners

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin
Wednesday 26 Jul 2017

I received many comments on last week’s column about those jailed for protesting the Tiran and Sanafir agreement with Saudi Arabia and my urging for their release and the dismissal of the cases against them.

Some comments were supportive, defending the prisoners’ freedom, while others were more circumspect, arguing that they broke the law and must bear the consequences, because the law must be applied to everyone equally.

I thank everyone who chimed in, whether in agreement or dissent, and I also fully appreciate the need to enforce the law without bias or discrimination. But there are three factors that should be considered when discussing the case of those detained in connection with the islands agreement.

First, the protest law, which was the basis for the arrest of those demonstrating against the agreement, has been controversial since its inception because it violates the constitutional right of free expression and peaceful protest.

In fact, the Supreme Constitutional Court last year found some articles of the law unconstitutional, holding that peaceful protest is an inalienable right. Although the House of Representatives quickly amended the law, the changes in my view fell short and did not correct the fundamental flaw in it, which is that it makes peaceful protest a crime.

The key word here, by the way, is peaceful, which must be the standard by which we judge. If someone takes a demonstration as the opportunity to attack people or property, that person commits other crimes punishable by criminal law and should not be considered a peaceful protestor.

Second, several of the those imprisoned for protesting the agreement face charges that go beyond simply demonstrating without a permit—for example, joining underground organizations. But in fact they are members of lawful political parties with known offices, official member rolls, and public positions.

Blurring legal lines like this when prosecuting opponents of state policies severely damages justice and state credibility, and it’s unfortunately a decades-long tradition in the state playbook: if you want to pursue your opponents, you bring a slew of sweeping charges in the hope that one of them will stick.

So, yes, it’s true that the law should be applied equally to all without discrimination, but it is similarly true that the law must be applied judiciously, not selectively against state dissidents and so broadly as to undermine justice. And this point applies equally to the islands’ protesters and to all cases in which political opponents have faced arbitrary charges.

The third consideration is appropriateness. The state makes a serious error when it treats young people demonstrating in defense of national, territorial sovereignty like common criminals. In the end, the state got its wish: parliament approved the agreement and the president ratified it despite popular anger.

How can those in power not see that continuing to imprison the protestors while other people who committed all manner of other crimes are released is a grave affront to the state? Taking into account appropriateness before cases reach the courts is not inconsistent with the fair application of the law, for criminal procedural codes provide ample margin for just these kinds of considerations.

The state should reassess, not only Yehia case of protestors against the islands’ treaty, but everyone who has been imprisoned simply for expressing their opinion.

No matter how unpopular or crude such expressions might be, in the end they are still expression, not assault, vandalism, or terrorism. Blurring these lines ultimately serves the interests of the real criminals, putting them in the same basket with patriotic young people who care about their country.

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