29 April 2014

Egypt: One Court, One Month: 1212 death sentences

Within a month, the Al Minya Criminal Court handed down in two separate verdicts 1212 death sentences following blatantly unfair and speedy trials in relation to the demonstrations that happened on 14 August 2013. In the first case, 37 Muslim Brotherhood supporters had their death sentence, issued on 24 March 2014, upheld, while the 491 remaining accused had their sentence commuted into life imprisonment. In the second case, 683 alleged supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, including the Muslim Brotherhood's leader Mohammed Badie, were also sentenced to death on 28 April 2014. Alleged charges include 'murdering a policeman', 'damaging public and private property' and 'harming public order'. These shocking sentences resulting from massive unfair trials provoked an outburst of the international civil society and community. Most recently, UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay said: "It is outrageous that for the second time (...) the Sixth Chamber of the Criminal Court of Al Minya has imposed the death sentence on huge groups of defendants after perfunctory trials".

After the destitution of President Mohamed Morsi by the military on 3 July 2013, protests spread out throughout Egypt and were violently repressed by the army and the police who used live ammunition, causing many victims. On 14 August 2013, the military authorities, after having imposed a state of emergency, invested public places where protesters used to gather, using military means, killing at least 985 people and injuring several thousand others. Hundreds of protestors were also arrested and prosecuted on various charges such as "belonging to a terrorist organisation" or "committing terrorist acts".

The Al Minya Governorate witnessed, as an Islamist stronghold, large movements of popular protests against the military takeover. Hundreds of people known for their actual or alleged support to the Muslim Brotherhood, to its political arm - the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) - or for their participation in the protests were arrested and detained, whether on the streets, at their home or workplace and severely tortured at the security services' premises. They were then charged with "harming public order", "damaging private and public property", "obstructing the intervention of law enforcement forces", "attacking a police station" and "causing the death of a police officer".

The loopholes of the investigation proceedings
In both cases, the investigation proceedings, clearly violating the right of defence, presaged the outcome of the trials. They were carried out against the accused in a particularly speedy manner in spite of the seriousness of the accusations, punishable by the death penalty according to the new so-called "anti-terrorist" legislation.

In the first case, the order of referral to the Criminal Court, No. 1852/2013, issued by the Al Minya General Prosecutor's counsel, Mr Abderrahim Abdelmalek, clearly shows that no real preliminary investigation was conducted. The order confines itself to listing all the accused and charging them collectively with a few crimes.

The defendants' lawyers, who were appointed during the preliminary investigation stage, identified serious violations of their clients' rights and protested against what was a parody of justice. In retaliation, they were themselves subjected to threats and arbitrary arrests for their alleged "support to a terrorist organisation".

37 deaths sentences upheld despite grossly unfair trial
In the case of the 529 Egyptians sentenced to death, the trial proceedings were distinctively speedy. There were only two hearings, including one which lasted only 20 minutes. Most of the international standards for a fair trial enshrined in the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) were blatantly violated.

The defence lawyers originally appointed by the victims were replaced by lawyers chosen by the Al Minya Court. In fact, the defendants were not able to communicate freely with their legal counsel before the trial, some lawyers were even banned from accessing the courtroom and thus unable to assist their clients. When the lawyers started to protest, the judge uttered insults against them before asking the security forces to intervene and get them out the courtroom.

The defendants have had no opportunity to defend themselves during the hearings, nor did they have had time or the facilities required to do so. They could not call any defence witness to testify, as they were blocked from entering the courtroom. Only one witness from the prosecution was called to testify: a police officer of Matay station who was not present during the events. The judge himself showed a clear bias all along the court hearings against the accused, calling them 'terrorists', in clear violation of the presumption of innocence guaranteed by international norms related to a fair trial.

Despite the fact that 118 out of the 529 defendants were detained at the time of the trial, only 64 were able to stand in trial and appeared physically, the remaining 54 others accused, although detained, were not even presented to the court in flagrant violation of the principles established by the ICCPR. As for the 410 other defendants considered as 'fugitives', none of them was legally summoned to appear before the court. In addition, the public, including lawyers, journalists and the defendants' relatives, were not allowed access to the trial and security services blocked the entry of the courthouse. Last but not least, some defense counsels received death threats from the security services. Some of them were subjected to an arrest warrant issued by the General Prosecutor and had to flee the country, fearing for their lives.

On 24 March 2014, the 529 defendants were collectively sentenced to death for having "harmed public order", "damaged public and private property", "stormed a police station" and "murdered or incited to murder a police officer". Their case was then referred to the grand Mufti, Egypt's top religion official appointed by the military authorities, for a non-binding procedural review. On 28 April 2014, after the grand Mufti's review was given, the final verdict was handed down by Judge Said Youssef Saad Sabraa, who upheld the death sentence for 37 individuals and commuted most of the 492 remaining death sentences to life imprisonment – for most of them in absentia. In fact, seven of these individuals are currently detained in Al Wadi Al Jadid Prison, located hundreds of kilometers away from Al Minya. On this specific case, Pillay stated: "In defiance of worldwide pleas for Egypt to respect its human rights obligations after 529 people were sentenced to death in March by the same court, hundreds now face a similar fate at the hands of a judicial system where international fair trial guarantees appear to be increasingly trampled upon."

683 alleged Morsi's supporters sentenced to death
Yesterday, on Monday 28 April 2014, in a separate but similar case, the Al Minya Court condemned Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and 682 Muslim Brotherhood alleged supporters, to death sentence on charges of "murdering a policeman in Adwa" on 14 August 2013 during the attack of Adwa's police station. According to several testimonies, some of the individuals sentenced were not present at that time and place, including Dr Badie, or even dead.

This verdict is actually the first to be handed down against Mohammed Badie, who is facing several trials on various charges along with Mohamed Morsi. He was not present during the hearing, as he was appearing before another court in Cairo, where he faces charges of murder and incitement to murder in a case connected to deadly protests in June.

While Monday's hearing only lasted about 10 minutes, the evidence presented by the General Prosecutor consisted mostly of footages showing the defendants allegedly attacking a police station. Like in the other trial, the defense counsels were not allowed to present their case nor have witnesses testify and most of the defendants were not even able to attend the hearings.

The Al Minya Court is set to issue its final verdict against the 683 defendants – for most of them in absentia – on 21 June 2014 after the case is referred to Egypt's grand Mufti for review, which is however generally considered a formality as his decision is not binding.

Mockery of justice in intensifying crackdown on dissent
In a statement jointly issued on 31 March 2014, the eight Special Rapporteurs said that these trials were clearly a "mockery of justice". These rulings are clearly part of an orchestrated campaign to stifle any dissent and are just extreme examples in a pattern of politicized implausible verdicts handed down to support the military rule.

These sentences were handed down in an escalation of the crackdown on all anti-military protestors, whether from the Muslim Brotherhood or liberal and secular movements. In this regard, the very same day, the two cases' verdicts were issued by Al Minya Court: the Cairo Court of urgent matters banned the April 6 Youth Movement which played a key role in the 2011 uprising against Mubarak for "conspiring with foreign powers" and "committing acts that distort the image of Egypt".

Today, Alkarama solicited the urgent intervention of UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions with the Egyptian authorities to demand that they abide by their international obligations resulting from the ratification of international human rights conventions, and therefore to cancel the 720 death sentences handed down after a grossly unfair trial, along with the 492 sentences to life imprisonment. Any implementation of the death sentenced would clearly be extrajudicial executions. These requests echo Pillay's statement. "A mass trial of hundreds of people, rife with procedural irregularities is simply not good enough for imposition of the death penalty. It is also a totally inadequate basis for sentencing 492 individuals to life in prison."

Since the military takeover, at least 16'000 people have been arrested and around 1'500 have been summarily executed by security forces, while thousands have been injured.

See also Alkarama's report: "Impunity is not an option"

Egypt - HR Instruments

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

ICCPR: Ratified on 14.01.1982
Optional Protocol: No

State report: Overdue since 01.11.2004 (4th)
Last concluding observations: 28.11.2002

Convention against Torture (CAT)

CAT: Accessed on 25.06.1986
Optional Protocol: No
Art. 20 (Confidential inquiry): Yes
Art. 22 (Individual communications): No

State report: Due on 25.06.2016 (initially due in 2004)
Last concluding observations: 23.12.2002

International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CED)


Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

Last review: 02.2010 (1st cycle)
Next review: 2014 (2nd cycle)

National Human Rights Institution (NHRI)

National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) – Status A

Last review: 10.2006
Next review: Deferred