A military court on 29 June handed down suspended sentences of one year in prison to five workers, who had been sacked by the Egyptian oil company Petrojet.
The sentencing marked the first enforcement of Law 34/2011, announced by the military in March, which criminalizes protests and strikes that hinder production in any workplace.
Khaled Ali, one of the workers’ lawyers and director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), condemned the ruling, especially as it comes after a revolution that put freedom of expression at the forefront of its demands.
“They are sending a panic message to all workers that protesting and freedom of assembly is not a right but a crime that needs to be punished – which is completely unacceptable, as it goes against trade unions’ freedoms,” said Ali.
The five were arrested by military police on 6 June and charged with carrying out a sit-in protest in front of the oil ministry, along with about 200 colleagues, during a time of emergency. The sit-in prevented the ministry from proceeding with its work, according to a report released by the ECESR.
The workers were protesting because Petrojet refused to rehire them, claiming their temporary contracts had ended, though some had been working there for 10 years. They also accused the company of defying the oil minister’s decision to permanently hire all temporary workers.
Security guards for the oil ministry detained the five protesters when they refused to end the demonstration and allegedly assaulted and beat them inside the ministry’s building. The guards then called the military police to come and arrest them, claiming they had attacked the building.
Military prosecutors asked that the defendants be punished according to Article 1 of Law 34/2011, enforced under Emergency Law, which states that anyone organizing or calling for a protest that hampers or delays work at any private or public establishment will be sentenced to jail and/or a fine of LE500,000.
The law criminalizing protests faced fierce criticism from rights groups and labor movements since it was announced by the government in March, almost one month after nationwide protests forced former President Hosni Mubarak to resign.
Defense lawyers at the ECESR rejected the enforcement of the law, saying the state of emergency was automatically lifted by the announcement of the constitutional declaration. The Emergency Law has been in place for 30 years, and its dissolution was a major demand during Egypt’s revolution.
“The constitutional declaration set new conditions on announcing a state of emergency, and therefore the current emergency should fall because it follows the 1971 Constitution,” Ali said.
According to Article 59 of the constitutional declaration, the president can announce a state of emergency after consulting the cabinet, and it can be activated only after a parliamentary majority accepts it. It also states that the state of emergency can last for a maximum of six months, only extendable after a public referendum approves an extension.
Ali added that the state of emergency deals with specific type of crimes, such as terrorism and drug dealing, and a peaceful protest outside the ministry doesn’t fall within this category because it doesn’t jeopardize society’s safety.
The military prosecution also based the charges on articles 5(a) and 48 of Martial Law 25, which gives the military court the jurisdiction to rule in crimes that occur on military proprerty. It also gives the military the right to identify the crimes that fall under its jurisdiction.
Thus the ECESR lawyers rejected trying the workers in military tribunals, as the crimes they are charged with did not occur on a military ground or in confrontation with military units.
Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of the Egyptian Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, an umbrella organization supporting independent unions, strongly condemned the law.
“This law is corrupt and exposes contradictory actions by both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the government,” said Abbas. “While they show unexplained procrastination in trying figures of the old regime, they hurry to try the poor workers who ask for a better living.”
Although the court used its right to suspend the sentences, which means that the defendants will not actually go to prison, labor activists denounced the verdict. According to Ali, suspended sentences mean that if they are arrested for protesting again, they will face past and current charges and therefore twice the penalty.
The ECESR will file a request to retry the workers in a civilian court.