An Egyptian court Wednesday sentenced seven men to life in prison for sexual assaults that took place during several rallies in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Two other men were sentenced to 20 years.
The court had merged three cases in which eight women were the victims of sexual assault during three public gatherings over the last two years.
Sexual harassment has been a recurrent issue in Egypt, with more than 250 documented cases of attacks on women between November 2012 and January 2014 in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of scores of political rallies, protests and celebrations since 2011.
One assault last month on a 42-year-old woman who was stripped naked by a group of men was captured by cellphone camera and aired worldwide, prompting newly elected President Abdel Fattah Sisi to visit the victim in her hospital room.
Sisi offered his personal apologies with a bouquet of red flowers as he vowed to punish those responsible for the assault. He also asked Youtube to remove the video upon the victim's request.
The merged cases in Wednesday’s sentencing involved attacks last year during celebrations marking the second anniversary of former leader Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow; gatherings this year marking Sisi’s electoral victory; and harassment that occurred last month on the day he was sworn in to office.
The verdicts represent a rare instance in Egypt of sexual assault suspects being detained, much less facing trial.
"I think it is just about time to issue deterrent verdicts against sexual attackers in the Middle East. Sexual harassment is a chronic issue in the Middle East and verdicts like today could help bring an end to such cruel phenomena," said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East and North Africa consultant for Equality Now.
"Justice will also help female victims to come forward with their complaints instead of feeling ashamed to face society," she added.
Women's rights advocates have often blamed authorities for failing to pursue convictions for sexual assault, as many people in Egypt’s relatively conservative society still blame such violence on the dress or behavior of the victims.
A United Nations study released in 2013 found that no less than 99% of Egyptian women report having experienced sexual harassment in various forms.
Hassan is a special correspondent.