Photo of Yara Sallam. Maha Turk. All rights reserved.
Last spring, on the way back from a trip to Dahab with some friends, we were pulled over by military officers in one of the many security checkpoints along the road. We were asked to get out of the bus as our bags were being searched.
One bag after the other was opened, turned over and its contents scattered carelessly on the street (one fails to see how that particular routine would help further security and stability). By the fourth or fifth bag, the checkpoint officers lost some of their enthusiasm and became less thorough in their search. As a result, and to the relief of many of us, some of the bags were loaded back into the bus unchecked, including one belonging to Yara Sallam, who upon realizing it, naively declared to the army officer that he had forgotten to search her bag!
But last spring now feels like decades ago.
Today, that young lady with such endearing honesty, is in the Qanater prison, where she had been locked-up in pretrial detention since late June. Yara, currently 28 years of age, might turn 30 in prison, according to the verdict issued on 26 October by the Heliopolis Misdemeanor Court sentencing her and 22 other people to three years in prison, plus an additional three years of probation and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds. The verdict is currently being appealed.
Now to put that into perspective: three of the police officers responsible for the death of the 37 detainees who were left to suffocate in the police truck transporting them in August 2013 received one-year suspended sentences. The fourth officer convicted in that same case received a ten-year sentence, which was later annulled.
So one can only assume that the crime Yara and her 22 co-defendants committed was something of greater gravity than intentionally leaving 37 human beings to suffocate to death. Perhaps something more or less along the lines of embezzling millions of dollars from state funds, the crime for which ousted president Mubarak was also sentenced to three years in prison?
Yara Sallam was sentenced to three years for protesting against, thus breaching, the protest law (Law number 107 of 2013), a “crime” which is exacting a less and less forgiving response from the Egyptian state. And if we have learned anything from the past three years, it’s that protesting is never a stand-alone offense, but one that comes with friends, namely “vandalism” and “displaying force with the aim of terrorizing the public”.
So it was on a dark and stormy night (at least that’s how it felt), on June 21, that Yara was arrested minutes after the violent dispersal of a peaceful-protest against the protest law, and charged with breaching the protest law and everything that comes with that. It doesn’t matter that she was caught by plain-clothed civilians and handed over to the police. It doesn’t matter that she was actually arrested buying a bottle of water from a kiosk in the vicinity of the protest area around the Ethadyia presidential palace. It doesn’t matter that she was arrested along with her cousin, but that he was released that same night. It doesn’t matter that the “violent acts” allegedly committed by Yara and her co-defendants were reported to have taken place after they were already in custody. And it doesn’t matter that Yara was not identified in any of the videos provided by the prosecution as evidence, but was convicted anyway. None of that matters, because justice is blind.
Anyone who has followed to some extent the situation in Egypt in the past months has probably come across Yara Sallam’s name a few times. Friends and colleagues of Yara’s have spared no effort to make her story public and to advocate for her immediate release via all available, or rather all remaining, channels. You don’t need to actually know Yara to believe that she isn’t the sort of person who would “terrorize” anyone or “vandalize” anything.
All the pictures of her, with that now famous smile, circulating social media networks are true to her character. We had glimpses of Yara's smile, and everything it reflects, the first time she appeared before court on June 29, that shocking day when the judge refused to grant the detainees provisional release while the case was adjourned until September 13. That was the day everyone started realizing we weren’t going to celebrate Yara’s release the following weekend…or the one after.
When the revolution erupted in 2011, Yara was in the Gambia working as a legal assistant at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. She returned to Egypt shortly after and took part in almost every protest in the months that followed, almost as though to make up for missing the first spark that promised a better future for Egypt. She worked with Nazra for Feminst Studies, where her work earned her the Africa Human Rights Defenders Award in 2014, before she moved back to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, where she had started her career in human rights, to work on transitional justice.
A holder of law degrees from Cairo University in Egypt, the University of Paris I Sorbonne in Paris, and the University of Notre Dame in the USA, Yara made the difficult choice of working in the non-profit sector as a human rights lawyer and defender in an environment typically hostile towards civil society, and yet she always kept her resolve. She managed to survive, up until that dreary evening, the repressive measures taken against dissent by successive regimes, implemented, ironically, by the same security apparatuses.
We are often accused of intensifying efforts calling on the release of the unjustly detained only when it concerns a "celebrity activist”, someone in the immediate circle of people with access to tools necessary to make that sort of noise, when there are hundreds of other cases that never get as much attention. There is of course truth to these allegations, but when those who have dedicated their careers to fighting human rights abuses against others are subject to such abuses themselves, it merits a special outcry.
Yara might be just one more name to add to the list of people wronged by the Egyptian justice system. But more importantly, she is one more name temporarily taken off an ever shrinking list of those fighting against all odds to correct injustice.