U.S. Citizen Goes Into Hiding to Avoid Prison
Human rights activist who spoke out against Islamic kidnappings of Christians slapped with false allegations, he says.
From Advocates For The Persecuted
Shafik Saleh Shafik
Shafik Saleh Shafik
Magda Refaat Gayed
Magda Refaat Gayed
From Advocates For The Persecuted
November 2005 - With an arrest warrant hanging over his head, Coptic Christian Shafik Saleh Shafik has gone into hiding in Egypt while his lawyers pursue an appeal over a controversial conviction of illicitly holding a minor at his shelter for young women.
The U.S. Christian faces one year in prison after a trial in which he was accused of raping and beating Magda Refaat Gayed at his Cairo shelter for troubled women.
Spearheading appeal efforts, defense lawyer Ramses Raouf el-Nagar plans to challenge the ruling this week on grounds of court corruption, misapplication of the law and failure to justify the verdict.
“None of the accusations in this case actually dealt with the reality of the situation,” El-Nagar said “It was a weird verdict.”
Shafik, who holds dual U.S./Egyptian citizenship, was sentenced to one year in prison with hard labor last month for holding a 17-year-old girl at his Cairo shelter for troubled women “without the permission of the authorized guardians,” though her parents had given him custody.
Additionally, the verdict claimed that he possessed a “wooden cane without any professional necessity” and “tortured her physically.” It also claimed that Shafik beat Magda Refaat Gayed to “force her repentance and to convince her not to embrace the Islamic faith.”
Shafik must pay all legal fees accrued during the 13-month trial.
A warrant for the Christian's arrest was issued on October 20, the same day that his sentence was delivered verbally by Abdallah Abu-Hashem, head judge of Cairo's Abbassiya Criminal Court No. 15. But, the handwritten verdict detailing charges against Shafik was not produced until November 13, almost one month later.
In the verdict, judges Abu-Hashem, Sa'ad Sayed Megahed and Nabil Abdel Hak Mohamed decided to discount Shafik's testimony because he was “just trying to avoid the punishment for his crime.”
The verdict failed to respond to evidence that Gayed's Christian parents had signed over custody of their daughter to Shafik in September 2004, after police recovered her from an Islamist group. The 17-year-old had fled her family two weeks earlier and was reportedly living with Sheik Shabaan, the Muslim religious leader of a local Islamist group, learning Muslim rituals in hopes of converting and marrying a Muslim young man.
“I was actually obliged to keep the girl, because I signed a paper promising her family that I would keep her,” Shafik commented.
The court's decision also ignored the opinion of Egypt's top forensic expert, Dr. Ayman Soda, who testified in September that Gayed could not have balanced on the balcony ledge of the Apaskhyron El-Kellini shelter and jumped from a height of 11 feet with her hands and feet chained as the court doctor had said.
Prosecution witnesses testified to seeing the bound girl enter a local coffee shop, screaming that Shafik had beaten and raped her only a day after she arrived at the shelter, but no eyewitnesses could confirm Gayed's claims. Initial tests showed that the young woman had not been violated sexually.
El-Nagar was quick to take issue with contradictions between the initial medical report and a second report conducted 48 hours after the incident. “The second report states that she was still chained. How did they examine her the first time if they never removed the chains?”
The lawyer also claimed that it was a misapplication of the law to charge Shafik with possession of weapons. “By definition, a weapon is a knife, or even a hammer is, if a person does not need it for their profession. [But] in this case a wooden stick has nothing to do with this law.”
“I am astonished,” defense lawyer Naguib Gabriel said. The defense had expected Shafik to be found innocent after Egypt's top forensic expert, Dr. Ayman Soda, testified last month on the Christian's behalf.
Soda had noted inconsistencies in Gayed's claims that she escaped from the second story of Shafik's shelter while bound hand and foot. The medical expert had also pointed out procedural failings on the part of the court doctor.
After listening to Soda's testimony, the court's top judge had reportedly commented, “This would mean everything [i.e., charges against Shafik] is a lie.”
Defense lawyers believe that the guilty verdict was based on religious prejudice, stating that since the first hearing in September 2004, the court had shown a consistent pro-Islamic bias.
In direct violation of Egyptian law, which forbids minors to carry out any legal activity including conversion, the state prosecutor had ordered 17-year-old Gayed be taken to the Islamic center at Al-Azhar to convert officially to Islam. The court also failed to return Gayed to her Christian family.
Shafik agreed that the court's decision was religiously motivated, saying, “Now we are guessing the [top] judge, he understood the whole time that I am innocent. But the other two with him, they are very Islamic, so they are thinking they want to put me in jail.”
A prominent speaker and writer on the issue of Coptic Christian rights, Shafik fears that authorities have used his case as a pretext to prevent him from attending human rights conferences and speaking engagements.
Never one to miss an opportunity to highlight the difficulties facing Copts in Egypt, the activist said, “In my case people want to know what has happened to me. But I want them to know why this is happening to me.”
At an October conference on freedom of belief sponsored by the National Council for Human Rights, Shafik spoke against systematic efforts by radical Muslims to kidnap and convert Christian girls. Many of the Christian young women at his shelter were brought there after their families recovered them from Muslim groups determined to spread Islam by abducting and converting them.
“When I took the case, I never thought about it as a religious case,” lawyer El-Nagar commented. “I thought it was about custody.”
The case quickly took on religious overtones, with the court initially ordering police to illegally transport the underage Gayed to Al-Azhar Islamic Center to officially convert to Islam, and several witnesses threatening to kill Shafik if the court found him innocent.
Later in the trial, the court repeatedly ordered Gayed to appear at the hearings and be returned to her family, but police refused to cooperate. The girl is reportedly still living with an Islamic group in Cairo.
Despite Shafik's frequent requests that the U.S. embassy attend his trial, embassy representatives never showed up at the hearings over the past year.
U.S. officials last month promised to monitor the U.S. citizen's prison stay, but Shafik has little hope that this will protect him from abuse at the hands of the police.
Denied his heart medication for 48 hours during his initial incarceration last year, Shafik fears that this time around he may receive worse treatment. “The people inside are going to hurt me,” he said. “They are going to say with witnesses that I was the troublemaker, that I started the fight. I'm going to be a piece of cake in their hands.”
In order for the Court of Cassation (the highest court of appeal for criminal cases) to hear Shafik's appeal, the Christian will eventually have to turn himself in.
In past cases, such as the 2001 trial of U.S. citizen Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Court of Cassation has shown itself to be relatively independent of government control.
Though the court normally takes six months to three years to hear a case, it can choose to ignore an appeal indefinitely. Shaiboub William Arsal, a Christian sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for supposedly killing his cousin and another Christian in El-Kosheh, is still waiting for his case to be heard before the Court of Cassation more than five years after he submitted his appeal.