A court in Egypt on Tuesday sentenced a 21-year-old university student accused of sexually assaulting underage girls to three years in prison for “misusing” social media networks and phone applications.
The verdict against Ahmed Bassam Zaki was passed by an economic court in Cairo, the Egyptian capital, and only ruled on charges that he misused social media and phone applications such as WhatsApp.
Prosecutors have said that Zaki used them to blackmail his victims into providing him with sexual favours. His trial on sexual assault charges is scheduled to begin next month. Zaki is being sued for damages in a separate court case.
The economic court ruled on white collar crime. It recently jailed several young women on charges that they used the Tiktok application to post online videos it says violated public morals and breached family values.
Zaki has a month to appeal verdict. In Tuesday’s hearing, The presiding judge, Hesham Abdel Maguid, rejected a request by the defendant’s lawyer to suspend the case pending a ruling on the criminal case.
Zaki was enrolled at the American University in Cairo (AUC) before he moved to Barcelona to study. But he was suspended from the Spanish university and expelled when sexual assault allegations against him first surfaced this summer.
His case sparked uproar among women's rights activists in Egypt, who called it part of a culture of harassment against women in the conservative nation despite government efforts to combat abuse.
Rights groups said the infrequency of court cases against offenders was chiefly the outcome of acquiescence whereby many Egyptians – men and women – explained such crimes away as the result of women's provocative attire or economic hardship.
The case also turned the spotlight on a patriarchal society in which women's rights were dismissed or held to be inferior to those of men.
Campaigners and social media users have vilified families and educational institutions for counselling their members not to go public with their experiences of sexual harassment or assault on the grounds that shame or disrepute would follow.
In recent years, the government has increased penalties for those convicted of rape or harassment, but the problem persists, prompting calls for effective societal reform.
Zaki’s case was intensely publicised because of his privileged background. Many Egyptians also saw the case as a potent example of how social media networks and widely used phone applications like WhatsApp can be used by sexual harassers to lure their victims.
Prosecutors said Zaki used lewd photos sent to him by his victims to blackmail them into having sex with him. In one case, according to the prosecutors, he threatened to send the photos to the parents of a victim with the claim that their daughter was involved in drugs and prostitution.
Another case that rocked Egypt this year involved a group of rich young men who drugged and sexually assaulted a young woman at a five-star Cairo hotel while filming the attack. Several arrests have been made in connection with that case, but a trial is yet to begin.