Over the last two years, hundreds of protesters have died at the hands of Egypt’s security forces. But from the beginning, Shaimaa Sabbagh’s case was different.
She was a young mother. A poet. The circumstances of her death were poignant: Nearly five months ago, she and a small group of activist colleagues were on their way to lay flowers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in tribute to slain Arab Spring protesters when, those with her testified, police opened fire without warning.
And in an age of social media, her dying moments in the arms of another activist, captured in graphic video images and still photos, ricocheted around the Internet, shocking even Egyptians who had become inured to the spectacle of bloodshed in the streets.
On Thursday, in a rare such conviction, an Egyptian court found a police officer guilty in Sabbagh’s death and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. The verdict against the 24-year-old police lieutenant, Yassin Hatem Salahedeen, can be appealed.
Sabbagh was killed by a volley of birdshot, commonly used by Egyptian security forces as a means of crowd control that occasionally turns lethal. In the footage, Sabbagh, 32, can be seen collapsing, bleeding from the neck and back. Police at first denied involvement, but audio from the scene captured the sound of a command to fire.
Outrage over the case was stoked when a spokesman for the medical examiner said the blast of birdshot was fatal because of Sabbagh’s slender build -- blaming her lack of body fat for the fact that the pellets penetrated her heart. The statement was later retracted.
Authorities also pursued a court case against 17 people who were present, accusing them of carrying out an illegal protest, although some described themselves as passersby. Egypt’s government criminalized unauthorized demonstrations after an outbreak of street protests following the military’s 2013 ouster of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president.
The 17 were acquitted last month, but the prosecutor has appealed that verdict.
Sabbagh’s case was highly unusual in that it came under official investigation at all. That probe came on the personal orders of President Abdel Fattah Sisi following the outcry over the death. Rights groups say security forces have killed hundreds of other unarmed protesters with no legal repercussions.
The officer accused of firing the fatal volley told the court that his weapon was not loaded and that there was no intention to injure anyone, the Associated Press reported.
Sabbagh’s death came on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the Jan. 25 mass protest movement that drove longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak from office. Some 900 demonstrators were killed as authorities sought to quell the 2011 uprising, but nearly all the police officers involved in those deaths have been acquitted.
Mubarak was cleared last year of charges in connection in the protesters’ deaths in the waning days of his rule, but the prosecutor sought and won a new trial for the 87-year-old leader.
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