CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top prosecutor referred 13 men to trial for attempted rape and assault of women during public rallies in Cairo's iconic Tahrir square, the first implementation of tough new penalties against rampant sexual violence, the state news agency reported.
The speedy trial reflects a government push to address the issue, and comes less than a week after the swearing in of Egypt's newly elected President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, but assaults have become more frequent and gruesome over the past three years of turmoil.
Since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, rallies in Tahrir have witnessed escalating attacks on women — raising concerns from activists that it was an attempt to keep protesters away from a public square that had become a place of dissent. But authorities did little to combat the phenomena then, and independent groups started initiatives to protect women.
The mob assaults last week caused particular public outcry as they came during celebrations of el-Sissi's inauguration and footage of one brutal attack was widely circulated. That prompted the new leader to make the highest profile condemnation yet of the escalating phenomena and order a crackdown on perpetrators.
El-Sissi visited one of the survivors of the violence, issuing what may be the first presidential apology to a civilian and promising her to take tough actions against the attackers.
The First Lady, in her first official function, also visited to the survivor Friday.
Ebaa el-Tamami, 32, who has been active against sexual harassment, said that while the arrests and referral to trial were good steps, she hoped it was not a one-off instance of finding a "scapegoat" at a time of heightened official attention.
"I hope they get a free and fair trial and don't get (heavy) sentences to make it look like the state is doing something," she said.
Egypt's state news agency MENA said the country's top prosecutor Hesham Barakat referred the 13 men to trial for taking part in at least three separate incidents of sexual assault, including one at the inauguration celebration and one from January 2013. One of the defendants is a minor, aged 14. No date for trial was set yet.
The men are accused of kidnapping the women, assaulting and torturing them, and attempting to murder and rape them. The charges carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The news agency said the prosecutor is also investigating the person who shot and uploaded the video of the attack, calling it a "violation of public decency." Egypt asked YouTube to remove a video of the woman being sexually assaulted. YouTube removed copies of the video in which the woman can be identified, but is allowing other versions that blur her image to remain on the site because the company considers them to be newsworthy.
Egypt only recently criminalized sexual harassment, a much lesser charge than that which the 13 men face.
In one of his last decisions before stepping down earlier this month, Adly Mansour, Egypt's interim president and el-Sissi's predecessor, decreed sexual harassment a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. It amended the country's existing laws, which did not criminalize sexual harassment.
Harassers face between 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 with a weapon.
Offenders would be prosecuted whether they commit harassment in public or in private.
Along with the maximum five-year sentence, offenders can be fined up to $714.
Later Saturday, over 200 demonstrators rallied to call on the state to increase penalties in the law, expand the definition of sexual abuse, investigate all mob assaults and put into law ways to provide help to survivors of assaults and train specialists.
"It is no longer a matter of harassment. They hurt the women. They were harassing with knives," said Ghida Nouri,31, who came to the protest in a polka-dotted sleeveless sundress with hand prints in red paint on her arms to represent how "bloody" the assaults have become.
In a twist, however, police detained two protesters after they raised a banner demanding that policemen responsible for assaults on women also be held accountable.
During the past three years of protests, women have often complained of harassment by policemen, during the breakup of rallies or during arrests.
Sameh Samir, the lawyer of those in custody, called their detention a "violation of freedom of expression."