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Egyptian influencers Hanin Hossam and Mawadda al-Adham, who were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of violating public morals, on the video-sharing app TikTok in Egypt's capital Cairo.   © 2020 Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images 

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities have since late April 2020 carried out an abusive campaign targeting female social media influencers on charges that violate their rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and nondiscrimination, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities have arrested at least 15 people, including a 17-year-old girl after she posted a video about being beaten and raped, on vague charges such as violating “public morals” and “undermining family values.” Three of those arrested are men accused of aiding two of the women. Many of the women were arrested based on what authorities said were “indecent” videos on social media applications, particularly the TikTok app. Yet in the majority of the videos and photos, the women appear fully dressed, at times singing or dancing. Those prosecuted have large followings on social media in the hundreds of thousands or millions.

“Arresting women and girls on very vague grounds simply for posting videos and photos of themselves on social media sites is discriminatory and directly violates their right to free expression,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Policing women’s peaceful conduct online smacks of a new effort to control women’s use of public spaces.”

These prosecutions appear to be the first use of morality charges under the 2018 cybercrimes law. Statements by the prosecutor general indicate that these criminal proceedings, in some cases, began after “social media users” complained about the videos on the prosecution’s Facebook page.

Courts have already sentenced 2 of the women and the 3 men to 2 years in prison and 2 more women in separate incidents to 3 years. The remaining 7 women and the 1 girl face ongoing prosecutions. The Interior Ministry’s Morality Police have been involved in several cases.

The first arrest, on April 21, was of Hanin Hossam, 20, a university student and social media celebrity with hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok and Instagram. The prosecution’s main evidence against her was a video she posted on TikTok, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, inviting her women followers to use another video-sharing platform, Likee, telling them they can earn money by making live videos for Likee that get more viewers.

Other arrests followed a May 2 statement by the Office of the Prosecutor General that said “forces of evil” were abusing the “new virtual electronic space” to “destroy our society, demolish its values and principles and steal its innocence.”

Prosecutors on June 11 referred Hossam for a criminal trial before Cairo’s Economic Court, which oversees cybercrimes, media reports said. The prosecution reportedly charged Hossam with “undermining family values and principles.”

In the same case, the authorities charged another woman, Mawadda al-Adham, 22, arrested on May 14, as well as three men they said assisted al-Adham and Hossam. The authorities also charged al-Adham with “undermining family values and principles” by publishing “indecent” videos and creating and managing websites for that purpose. All were sent to pretrial detention.

On July 27, Cairo’s Economic Court convicted al-Adham and Hossam, sentenced them to 2 years in jail, and fined them 300,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP) (almost US$19,000) each. Defense lawyers appealed the verdict. The court convicted two of the men for assisting Hossam. The charges and the sentences are based on the 2018 cybercrime law, several provisions of which mandate up to five-year prison sentences and/or large fines for online content deemed to violate undefined terms such as “family values” or “public morals.” The third man was convicted of managing al-Adham’s account and possessing unlicensed software.

The authorities arrested Aya, 17, known on social media as “Menna Abdelaziz,” on May 28. She had posted a video on May 22 in which her face appeared bruised. In it, she says she was beaten by a group of young men and women, and that the men also raped her, filmed the acts, and then blackmailed her with the footage. On May 30, the Office of the Prosecutor General issued a statement saying prosecutors ordered her detained pending investigation as a victim of sexual assault but also as a suspect in morality-related offenses for her videos generally.

The statement confirmed Aya’s allegations of the assault and rape and said she was examined by forensic authorities. Three men, a boy, and two women were arrested in connection with the assault and rape.

On June 9, the prosecution moved Aya to a government-run women’s shelter where she would receive psychological and social rehabilitation while the investigations continued. On July 26, the prosecutor general referred the three men and two women to criminal trial on charges of beatings and sexual assault. The boy was reportedly referred to a children’s court.

On June 29, the Cairo Economic Court sentenced Sama el-Masry, 42, a well-known TV personality, actress, singer, and dancer, to 3 years in prison and a fine of 300,000 EGP for “public indecency.” A public prosecutor’s statement on April 27 said authorities had ordered el-Masry detained for publishing “sexually suggestive” videos on YouTube and other social media platforms. She is appealing the verdict. The prosecution also referred el-Masry for a separate trial for “inciting debauchery,” which began on July 6.

The authorities should drop prosecutions and quash convictions based on arbitrarily vague laws that interfere with freedom of expression and privacy, Human Rights Watch said. They should immediately release Aya from detention, while ensuring her safety and that she receives appropriate care. International law prohibits the detention of children except as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

These Egyptian laws and government practices violate the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and the prohibition of discrimination against women, including social and cultural discrimination, under international human rights law. Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights require that any limitations to freedom of expression must be proportionate, stated in a precise manner, and be necessary to protect national security, public order, public health, or morals in a democratic society. Morals must not be derived from one set of traditions, religion, or culture, but rather in light of the diversity of a society. Any limitations on these rights should respect the principle of nondiscrimination. Any criminal law should be so clearly defined as to allow anyone to predict what conduct will be a crime.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Egypt is a state party, requires state parties to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life” and “to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”

The recent arrests of women take place against the backdrop of a #MeToo social media campaign in which dozens of Egyptian women are speaking out on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook about their experiences of gender-based violence, assault, and rape.

“These serial arrests of women send a chilling signal about the state of women’s rights in Egypt,” Begum said. “Instead of tackling pervasive domestic violence, sexual harassment, and violence, Egyptian authorities appear intent on reinforcing societal discrimination by persecuting women and girls for how they appear online or what they say.”

Abusive ‘Morality’ Laws

On July 29, the prosecutor general said in a statement that it “is necessary to protect national societal security” and that the general prosecution’s role requires not only prosecuting criminals but also acting as “a guardian of social norms.”

Several Egyptian laws restrict the right to privacy and freedom of expression. Among these overbroad laws that target women and girls in discriminatory and disproportionate ways are several Penal Code provisions that criminalize acts of “public indecency,” “inciting debauchery,” and the possession or distribution of materials deemed to violate “public decency.” The law does not define “public decency,” “debauchery,” or the acts that are punished.

In 2018, Parliament passed a cybercrimes law that restricts online content deemed to “undermine public morals” (article 26) or “family values” (article 25). The government is required to adopt and publish implementing regulations (or bylaws) within three months of passage, which it has not yet done. Article 27 criminalizes the use of the internet to “commit any other criminalized offense,” such as those in the Penal Code.

The recent trials were conducted by the economic courts, established in 2008 and consisting of appeals courts judges. Their jurisdiction includes violations of the 2018 cybercrimes law and the 2003 telecommunications law.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a 30-page court verdict with its reasoning in Hossam’s and al-Adham’s case as published by local news websites and also reviewed media reports and statements by the prosecution regarding these cases.

The court invoked articles 25 and 27 of the cybercrimes law and other Penal Code provisions about the complicity in helping al-Adham as a fugitive before her arrest and not reporting offenses.

In some recent “morality” prosecutions, such as those of Hossam, al-Adham, and el-Masry, the initial prosecutorial statements leveled broader accusations against them that could be interpreted as relating to sex work.

Such accusations do not appear in the actual charges and verdicts but led to heightened media coverage, in which commentators pressed the authorities to punish the women and girls. Pro-government media heavily covered the prosecutions, including publishing photos of the women and their full names.

In many of these recent arrests, the prosecutor general’s statements said that investigations were initiated after receiving “complaints” by “social media users” through the prosecution’s Facebook page or after “lawyers” filed complaints. Human Rights Watch reviewed several videos on YouTube posted by people calling for the women’s arrest for “immoral content,” following which some of the women were arrested.

Egyptian law allows hisba complaints (accountability based on Islamic Sharia) by members of the public for a wide range of acts, such as a journal article, a book, or a dance performance that the person believes harmed the society’s common interest, public morals, or decency.

The authorities have acted upon such complaints for years to prosecute peaceful journalists, writers, and activists who appear to challenge government politics or societal norms. In 2015, a TV presenter, Islam al-Beheiry, received a five-year prison sentence on charges of “defaming religion” based on his criticism of some Islamic scholars and teachings. His sentence was reduced on appeal to one year and he was released in November 2016 after a presidential pardon.

Regarding the recent multiple arrests of women, the prosecutor general, Hamada al-Sawy, has publicly acknowledged acting upon such complaints.

Hanin Hossam and Mawadda al-Adham

On April 23, two days after Hossam’s arrest, the Office of the Prosecutor General issued a 13-page statement detailing the Interior Ministry’s Morality Police investigation into her case. The statement said authorities found “evidence,” including written and audio communications and bank transfers, that they claim indicated that Hossam was involved in a network aimed at recruiting women and girls to join certain social media platforms that allow them to offer paid online chat and video services.

The Cairo Economic Court’s verdict on July 27 says that the prosecutor general received several complaints about the women, including from a lawyer named Abdel Rahman al-Gohary. The main evidence cited in the court’s reasoning are Hossam’s video in which she invites women to join Likee, saying that they can earn money by making live videos that get more viewers, as well as bank transfers and two social media accounts of Hossam’s and four of al-Adham’s on Instagram, TikTok and Facebook.

The court said in its reasoning for al-Adham’s prison sentence that she “undermined family values” by posting social media videos aiming at “seducing young men” to gain more viewership and followers to gain more money through advertisements. The court also said she appeared in the videos “in revealing clothes dancing in an immoral way in public places.”

The court said the three men – named in the verdict as Mohamed Abd al-Hamid Zaki, Mohamed Aladdin Ahmed, and Ahmed Sameh Ateya – were employees of Likee and Bigo Live, another Chinese app, and sentenced them for assisting al-Adham and Hossam in managing their media accounts, and possessing and using encrypted channels of online communications, a criminal offense under the 2018 cybercrimes law.

The court rejected the defense lawyer’s request to have the Constitutional Court review and define acts that violate “family values.” The court claimed that such laws do not restrict free expression but are necessary to address “deviant ideas” and “moral degradation.” The court also said that parents should monitor their offspring and restrict their access to online content that changes their “identity, traditions and morals.”

Press statements by al-Adham’s lawyer say that the prosecution asked her to undergo a “virginity test,” which she rejected. The authorities may have subjected at least one other woman and the girl to such virginity testing.

“Virginity testing” is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights, regarded as a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, gender-based violence, and discriminatory. The World Health Organization has said that “virginity tests” have no scientific validity and that healthcare workers should never conduct them.

In December 2011, Egypt’s Administrative Court condemned forcing detained women protesters to undergo virginity tests ordered by army generals, including Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then-head of military intelligence. The court ruled that virginity tests “constitute a violation to women’s body and an assault on their humanity and dignity.” Despite the ruling, Egyptian rights organizations have documented the authorities’ continuing use of such tests.

Egyptian prosecutors and judicial authorities should immediately cease this abusive practice and Egyptian legislators should pass a law making it illegal, Human Rights Watch said.

Manar Samy

On July 1, the authorities arrested Manar Samy, 30, a popular TikTok and Instagram content maker with more than 250,000 followers, following a hisba complaint submitted by a lawyer, Ashraf Farahat, saying that she had been “publishing sexually provocative videos on TikTok.” The prosecution ordered Samy detained for using her social media accounts in a way that “undermined the values and family principles of the Egyptian society.” A judge sent her to pretrial detention.

On July 29, Tanta’s Economic Court convicted Samy as charged, sentenced her to 3 years in prison, and fined her 300,000 EGP. On August 9, Samy was released on bail of 20,000 EGP (US$1,250) pending her appeal.

During a detention renewal hearing on July 5, the prosecution in Qaliubiya governorate ordered the arrest of Samy’s father, brother, and sister, media reports said, after an argument arose outside the courthouse over whether Samy could see her 3-year-old daughter. On August 5, the prosecution renewed the 3 family members’ detention for 15 days on charges of attacking a police officer.

The 2010 United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules) provide that “women prisoners’ contact with their families, including their children, and their children’s guardians and legal representatives shall be encouraged and facilitated by all reasonable means.”

Sherifa Refaat and Noura Hisham

In early June, the authorities arrested Sherifa Refaat, 46, and her daughter, Noura Hisham, 24, a popular mother-daughter duo on TikTok and Instagram with more than 100,000 followers, for “undermining the family values of Egyptian society.” In a video posted on YouTube on April 30, one person who had made several complaint videos said that the authorities should arrest Refaat and Hisham “to send them where they sent Sama el-Masry.” A few weeks later, the Interior Ministry’s Morality Police arrested the two at an apartment in Cairo’s Heliopolis neighborhood. The person who made the complaint video was the first to announce the news of their arrest on June 10.

Prosecutor General Hamada al-Sawy said on June 12 that the prosecution’s “analysis and monitoring” unit “received several complaints calling for their arrest” and that the prosecution staff “monitored the anger of social media users” over videos published by the two women.

Media reports said prosecutors accused the two of posting “sexually suggestive” pictures and videos “amounting to incitement to prostitution.” On June 27, a judge renewed pretrial detention for both. Their trial began on July 29 before Cairo’s Economic Court.

Menatullah Emad

On July 1, police in Cairo’s Dokki neighborhood arrested “Renad” (her real name is Menatullah) Emad, 20, in a café. Prosecutors ordered her detained pending investigation over charges of posting “indecent” content on TikTok. Emad is a social media influencer on Instagram and TikTok with over 2.3 million followers on both platforms. Both accounts appear to have been deleted.

Hadeer al-Hady

On July 6, Giza’s Morality Police arrested Hadeer al-Hady, 23, who has more than a million followers on TikTok and Instagram, for posting “indecent” videos online. They confiscated al-Hady’s laptop and phone and, on August 4, renewed her pretrial detention until August 18. Media reports indicate that the authorities might subject her to virginity testing.

Basant Mohamed

Morality Police arrested Basant Mohamed, a 20-year-old student from Alexandria, on July 10, regarding her video content on TikTok. Mohamed, who has almost one and half million followers on TikTok and Instagram, was released on July 11 pending an investigation.

Discrimination and Violence Against Women, and Media Censorship

The recent “morality” arrests of women are taking place in an environment in which media and human rights organizations have been reporting escalating government restrictions aimed at “reshaping” artistic and cultural expression. For President al-Sisi’s government, the red lines are not just about political dissent but also “public morals” and societal norms. President al-Sisi has made several statements in which he criticized media that “has harmful effect on the society.”

In 2018, Human Rights Watch reported a campaign to crush artistic freedoms in Egypt, including arresting pop singers, writers, and belly dancers. The authorities prosecuted several for alleged “indecency.”

“Morals” prosecutions frequently affect women disproportionately as they revolve around women’s clothes or behavior, reinforcing the deep-rooted societal discrimination women face compared to men. Most of the recently prosecuted women appeared in videos and photos – which constituted the basis for their arrest – in regular clothes that are common in Egypt. Many of the women social media influencers targeted also reportedly come from poorer social and economic classes.

These arrests are taking place against the backdrop of a #MeToo social media campaign in which dozens of Egyptian women are speaking out on platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook about their experiences with gender-based violence, assault, and rape. Egyptian security and judicial authorities often fail to pursue men accused of sexual harassment or assault.

The government also has failed to prioritize a draft law stalled in parliament since 2017 that would define and criminalize domestic violence. The UN estimates that almost a third of Egyptian women experience intimate partner physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Weak implementation of a recent law that criminalizes female genital mutilation allows for the practice to remain highly prevalent.

In addition to squeezing online space for women, the authorities have waged against independent women’s and human rights groups, making it difficult for them to work without facing retaliation and prosecution. The authorities have, for the past five years, prosecuted and banned from leaving the country leading independent women’s rights activists, including Mozn Hassan, head of Nazra for Feminist Studies, and Azza Soleiman, head of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. Nazra had to shut down their offices in March 2018 as a consequence of a years-long asset freeze in connection with the ongoing prosecution.

The National Council on Women, a government entity tasked with empowering women and ending discrimination, has not issued any statements or taken any action to support women’s rights activists facing prosecution and travel bans or the women caught in the government’s serial arrests targeting social media content makers.

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