CAIRO - An Egyptian court sentenced seven men to life in prison on Wednesday for sexual assaults on women during public rallies in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, in the first such heavy sentences since the government vowed to crack down on rampant sexual violence.
Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, but assaults have become more frequent and brutal since the 2011 overthrow of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak, with frenzied mobs targeting women who take part in political gatherings.
The charges stemmed from four different incidents of sexual assault this year and last year, including during celebrations of the inauguration of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in June.
Videos of the brutal attacks posted online caused a public outcry, and pushed the new leader to make the highest profile condemnation of the escalating phenomenon and order a crackdown on perpetrators. A week later, 13 suspects were sent to trial in a speedy referral aimed at sending a message of deterrence.
"This is the first verdict in a case of sexual assault in the history of this country," said Mozn Hassan, director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, which provides legal representation for victims. "This could open the door for ending impunity in such cases."
The sentencing session was aired live on TV, indicating the government hoped it would serve as a deterrent.
Judge Mohammed el-Fiqqi sentenced the seven men to life in prison, with four of them receiving multiple life sentences. An eighth defendant received two 20-year jail sentences and a ninth received a single 20-year sentence.
The five were given multiple sentences after being found guilty of taking part in more than one attack.
Hassan said she hoped the verdicts were not the last, and that authorities would investigate the 500 cases of sexual violence in Tahrir Square since 2011 that her centre has documented. Sexual violence is often unreported, particularly in conservative countries like Egypt, because women are ashamed to come forward, and where it is hard to identify perpetrators during the attacks by dozens of men.
Scenes of women being attacked by frenzied mobs have sullied political rallies in the square made famous by the revolt that toppled Mubarak. Activists have organized volunteer groups to protect women, and many of the volunteers have also come under attack.
The various charges against the defendants ranged from attempted rape, kidnapping and assault to torture and attempted murder in the four incidents. The maximum possible sentence was life in prison.
Hassan said three of the assaults occurred in different parts of Tahrir Square on June 8, the day of el-Sissi's inauguration. The fourth dates back to a rally in Tahrir in January 2013.
In each of the June 8 attacks, women said the mob encircled them, used sharp objects to tear their clothes off -- in some cases leading to vaginal and breast wounds -- and beat them with belts. Some of the victims had belt marks on their faces, bruises and dislocated shoulders.
Hassan said another 10 cases from that day have not yet been sent to trial, including one in which a woman required 13 stitches in her vagina. Two other women suffered from severe burns after their attackers pushed them into vats of boiling water set up on tea-maker stalls.
She said the cases have not yet been moved to court because the severity of the injuries delayed further investigation.
For the case ruled upon Wednesday, the women were asked before the referral to trial to identify the attackers from a police lineup. Some of the women passed out while others went into fits of hysteria upon seeing the suspects. One woman suffered temporary paralysis.
The defendants were to be placed on surveillance for five years once they finish their sentences. They were also ordered to pay compensation.
The sentences can be appealed.
Hassan said the harsh sentences are not enough, though, to combat the widespread phenomenon. She wants the legal definition of rape expanded to include penetration with any body part or object without consent. The current law doesn't define rape, and refers to "indecent violation," a vague term with a moral connotation in Arabic.
"We have been campaigning not for toughening the sentences, but for changing the philosophy and definition," Hassan said. "It is about shaming. You should shame for the right thing."
Hassan's group has also asked a government fact-finding commission to investigate allegations by activists and other rights groups that sexual violence is deliberately used to clear protesters from public squares.
Such allegations have surfaced throughout Egypt's troubled transition, regardless of who was in power. Police reluctance to enter the square during political rallies has fed the suspicions.
In one of his last decisions before stepping down in June, Adly Mansour, Egypt's interim president and el-Sissi's predecessor, decreed sexual harassment a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. The decree amended the country's existing laws, which did not criminalize sexual harassment.
Those found guilty of harassment face six months to five years in prison, with harsher sentences reserved for offenders holding a position of power over their victims, such as being a woman's superior at work or being armed.
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