MENNA A. FAROUK
A former Cairo university student appeared in court charged with blackmail and indecent assault of at least three women in a closely-watched case prompted by social media that opened up a rare public debate on sex crimes.
Ahmed Bassam Zaki, aged in his early 20s and a former student at the American University in Cairo, attended a closed session with the trial adjourned to November 7, a lawyer from the defence team, Ahmed Ragheb, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In September, the public prosecutor referred Zaki to the criminal court on charges of “sexually assaulting three girls under the age of 18 and threatening them along with a fourth girl with disclosing matters related to their honor”.
Zaki, who comes from a wealthy family, could face a life sentence or death sentence if the prosecution proved rape with evidence.
The case has attracted widespread attention from media, religious figures and women’s groups in a country where rights defenders say sexual harassment or abuse often goes unpunished.
A 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found Cairo to be the most dangerous megacity for women and 99% of women in Egypt interviewed by the United Nations in 2013 said they had experienced sexual harassment.
Allegations against Zaki were posted in previous years on a private Facebook group run by AUC students but authorities reacted this year after the accusations surfaced on an Instagram account named @assaultpolice.
After Zaki’s arrest, hundreds of women started to speak up on social media about abuse sparking at #MeToo Movement, exposing several men and also revealing a high-profile rape case that occurred in a Cairo hotel in 2014.
In August, the public prosecution arrested two suspects in that case and said seven others had fled the country and it was pursuing them.
On Sept. 25, the public prosecution said Lebanon had handed over three men accused in the case while two others had fled.
Responding to the growing public debate over women’s safety, parliament passed a law in August giving women the automatic right to anonymity in a bid to encourage more to report sexual assaults.
“Zaki’s case has been shocking as it put into debate a deeply-rooted tradition of accusing the victim not the harasser and justifying his actions,” said lawyer Reda Eldanbouki, executive director of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness. – Thomson Reuters Foundation.