Mass death sentences the norm in Sisi's Egypt

Mass death sentences the norm in Sisi's Egypt
Hundreds of people have been sentenced to death in Egypt often following sham trials, including the country's first democratically elected leader Mohammad Morsi.
4 min read
19 May, 2015
Muhammed Badie (orange) has been handed two death sentences (Anadolu)

The testimony of one witness was all that was needed to send the six men charged by Egyptian authorities for being a part of what has become known as the Arab Sharkas case to the gallows.

They were accused of being members of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the militant group based in the Sinai Peninsula and now renamed Sinai Province since pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS), and killing Egyptian soldiers, as well as being involved in a shoot-out with police.

Rights group Amnesty described the trial of the defendants Ahmed Abu Saree, Muhammed Ali, Hani Amer, Muhammed Bakri, Khalid Faraj and Islam Sayyid, as “grossly unfair”, also pointing out that two of the defendants were already in prison when the shoot-out took place.

Yet, considering the theatre of the absurd that is the Egyptian judiciary, it is perhaps not surprising that defendants can be hanged for crimes that they were not free to commit.

The courts now have a penchant for delivering mass death sentences, which are not so rare in Egypt, following the coup against former president Muhammed Morsi in July 2013. Hundreds of politicians and non-politicians alike have sentenced to death over alleged involvement in violence after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's takeover, or misdemeanours committed during the Muslim Brotherhood's period in power.

While the judiciary under Morsi was no paragon of virtue, the current situation has been described by Human Rights Watch as “the most serious in the country's modern history”, with the judiciary exhibiting “serious procedural deficiencies that deprived detainees of basic due process rights”.

The first mass trial to lead to death sentences typifies this.

In March 2014, after a mere hour, 529 people were sentenced to death on charges including an attack on a police station in the central Egyptian city of Minya, which led to the death of one policeman. The prosecution did not bother putting any evidence forward, and the vast majority of defendants were tried in absentia.

The speed of the trial and the lack of due process was explained away by a judicial official as a result of the “exceptional circumstances” Egypt was under.

“We don't have time to summon each and every defendant, prove their presence, and confirm who are their lawyers,” he told Associated Press at the time.

In the end, most of those sentenced to death had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The number still on death row, 37, is relatively smaller, but still shocking.

That sentencing was a taste of things to come, with mass death sentences becoming par the course, and some defendants, such as the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Muhammed Badie, picking up more than one.

He was among 683 people to be sentenced to death in April 2014, for alleged involvement in the August 2013 attack on the Adwa police station, also in Minya. Once again there were serious procedural issues – this time no defendants were even present at the trial's one and only hearing, or the sentencing.

The judge responsible for that sentencing, Saed Yusuf Sabri, is known as 'the Butcher'. He confirmed 183 of the death sentences in June 2014. A retrial was later ordered by Cairo's Court of Cassation.

December 2014 was the turn of another judge with a reputation for draconianism, Nagi Shehata, to get in on the act.

He sentenced 188 people to death in a case surrounding the August 2013 attack on a police station in Kerdasa, Giza. 11 policemen died, as well as two civilians.

2015 brought more of the same, with one of Morsi's many trials now resulting in a death sentence.

On May 16 he was sentenced to death for events surrounding his prison break in January 2011 during the Egyptian revolution, along with over 100 others. Those sentenced to death include some of the Muslim Brotherhood's top brass, including Badie again, and Khairat al-Shater, who was the organisation's first choice for the presidency in 2012 before not being allowed to run. The Brotherhood-linked cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has also been sentenced, despite being based in Qatar.

There are other, even more improbable names, among those sentenced, including a political science professor, Emad Shahin, and the woman who ran the Muslim Brotherhood's Twitter feed, Sondos Asem, who is now studying in the UK.

The Egyptian judiciary also surprisingly think that Hamas and Hezbollah can put their regional differences over the past few years to one side, for the goal of destabilising Egypt, including members of both the Palestinian and Lebanese group as part of the death sentences, with Hamas noting that some of the Palestinians sentenced were in Israeli prisons, or had been dead for years.

But even being dead when the crime was committed is not enough for the scrupulous Egyptian judiciary.

With more trials on the horizon, and more sentences, it appears that Egypt's death row will grow longer.