Egyptian TikTok influencer to appeal against 10-year conviction

A court this week handed Haneen Hossam and her friend prison sentences and fines for human trafficking

FILE PHOTO: The TikTok logo is pictured outside the company's U.S. head office in Culver City, California, U.S.,  September 15, 2020.   REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo
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Egyptian TikTok influencer Haneen Hossam plans to appeal against a 10-year prison sentence for human trafficking handed to her by a Cairo court this week, her lawyer said on Monday.

On Sunday, the court found Hossam, 21, and Mawada El Adham, 23, guilty of human trafficking, sentencing them to prison and fining them 200,000 Egyptian pounds ($12,756) each.

Hossam was handed a 10-year term while El Adham was sentenced to six years.

“We hope that she can get a reduced jail sentence or an acquittal,” lawyer Hani Sameh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The pair were arrested last year alongside three men and charged with flouting the moral values of Egyptian families, igniting a fierce debate in Egypt over the country’s laws when it comes to women and the way they should behave online.

The women were prolific in posting videos to social media sites such as TikTok and Likee that often featured them wearing trendy clothes while dancing and lip-syncing to popular songs.

Hossam has 900,000 followers on TikTok and El Adham has one million Instagram followers.

The three men found guilty of aiding the pair and handed six-year sentences.

An appeals court in January overturned their conviction for “inciting debauchery” but introduced the new charges of human trafficking against Hossam and El Adham.

Prosecutors brought the charge, of which they were convicted this week, for their online appeals to others to post similar content and make money during the months of lockdown in which many Egyptians lost their jobs.

They said the women exploited their recruits’ poverty and persuaded them to post content that was incompatible with the “moral sensibilities” of Egypt.

This ruling is downright cruel, these young girls are not criminals and they have not done anything wrong

Prosecutors said their investigation conclusively proved that the women received payments from TikTok and the Singaporean-owned Likee to encourage other “pretty girls” in Egypt to produce videos of themselves for the sexual gratification of their viewers.

This would increase the social networks’ visibility.

The women said they were innocent because they were arrested in April and May 2020.

They said they found financial success by making videos and wanted to share the idea with other people who might need the money.

The arrests were widely denounced by activists, with some of the country’s most prominent women’s rights campaigners demanding their release.

As of Tuesday, 255,000 people had signed an online petition calling for Hossam and El Adham to be freed.

"This ruling is downright cruel," Nehad Abul Qomsan, the head of the National Council for Women and one of the country's foremost feminist activists, told The National.

"These young girls are not criminals and they have not done anything wrong."

Ms Abul Qomsan said their arrest was based on a vague part of Egypt’s Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes law prohibiting content that “violates Egyptian family values”.

“There are no clear guidelines on exactly what kind of content offends Egyptian family values," she said.

"It is decided on a case-by-case basis, which is not only unjust but very worrying for the future of women in Egypt."

Ms Abul Qomsan said the human trafficking charges highlighted a clear discrepancy in the severity of punishments given to men for committing similar acts.

“There are much more damaging calls to action being posted on social media in Egypt every day," she said.

"Why do these girls’ posts deserve a decade in prison when there are men of religion sanctioning marital rape, wife-beating and [female genital mutilation] … every day?”

But some supported the convictions, saying the women’s actions were immoral.

“I have always been very troubled by some of the posts I see on TikTok and Instagram,” said Randa Mansy, 55, a mother of three who lives in Alexandria.

“Because there are no parents watching over these kids, there needs to be some sort of regulation on the content they can post online and who gets to see it.”

Ms Mansy said she worried about who was watching the videos.

“If my daughter posts a video of herself dancing and gets one million views, I will wonder how many of those views are perverted old men who now have access to her personal life,” she said.