CAIRO, Egypt – An Egyptian court sentenced a man to three years in prison Tuesday after finding him guilty of sexually assaulting a woman passer-by, the official Middle East News Agency reported.
The sentence is the first after complaints by human rights groups that sexual harassment and assault are on the increase in Egypt, including against foreign tourists.
MENA said the suspect, truck driver Sharif Gommaa, was also ordered to pay about US$950 in compensation to the woman he attacked on June 25 as she was strolling in the upscale Heliopolis neighborhood of Cairo.
The 27 year-old woman raised the charges, saying Gommaa grabbed her breasts and they struggled until she managed to overpower him and force him to go with her to a nearby police station, MENA said.
The case is also unusual because most women in Egypt do not report sexual harassment or even assault, to avoid public embarrassment. But the attacked woman, identified by MENA and court records as Nuha Rushdi Saleh, is a well-known film director.
The Egyptian Center of Human Rights welcomed the ruling Tuesday as "a beginning of deterring offenders" in sexual attacks that have become a widespread phenomenon.
Egypt's criminal code imposes a prison sentence and a fine in cases of sexual abuses and attacks, but lacks a clear definition of sexual harassment.
Earlier this month, eight young men were arrested during a mob-style attack by scores of youths against female bystanders in Cairo.
Last year, in a widely publicized case, mobs attacked women during an Islamic holiday, setting off a political debate whether President Hosni Mubarak's regime pays less attention to public order than to the safety and security of its own members.
In both mob attacks, witnesses claimed police did nothing to protect the women. The attacks took place in downtown Cairo, where there are plenty of police officers at hand, and human rights activists cited the lack of police intervention as a sign that Egypt is mismanaged and corrupt.
The Egyptian Center of Women's Rights has urged the government to take action against sexual harassment and in a report earlier this month proposed a harsh punishment for offenders.
The center also published its own study that said 50 percent of Egyptian women interviewed said they had been subject to harassment by men, while 62 percent of questioned Egyptian men admitted they have harassed women in some way. Thousands of men and women were polled but no margin of error was given.
Foreign female tourists have also complained of sexual harassment on blogs and in newspaper reports after returning from Egypt.
The People's Assembly, or parliament, is expected next month to discuss measures that will make harassment a crime.