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MATAI, Egypt — As far as Hana Gamel was concerned, things had been going as well as they could. In September 2013 her husband, Sheik Ahmed Qorani, a respected preacher in the city of Minya, was arrested a few miles away in his hometown of Matai. It was two months after President Mohamed Morsi had been toppled by the army, and Qorani was accused of “a tendency to belong” to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Qorani was eventually released on bail.
Then at the beginning of 2014, Qorani’s name suddenly popped up on a list of about 500 men accused of attacking a police station and killing an officer in August of the previous year. As the date of the court case approached, rumors spread of potentially harsh prison sentences. Several days before the verdict, Gamel convinced her husband to go into hiding. But she remained hopeful that the matter could be resolved on appeal. Qorani, a graduate of the prestigious Al-Azhar University, was not even involved in politics. Surely, she thought, the misunderstanding would be cleared up.
But on the morning of March 24, when Gamel turned on her TV, she was stunned to learn that her husband, along with 528 others accused in the August murder of the police officer, had been found guilty and sentenced to die.
As soon as she heard the news, her body convulsed, and she collapsed into tears.
“I could not believe it,” she says, sitting in her parents’ modest living room, her 2-month-old, the youngest of their five children, in her arms. “Despite the cruelty of the regime, I would have never expected such a tough verdict,” she adds, referring to the current military-backed government.
The death sentences highlight Egypt’s postcoup political landscape, where a combination of lust for revenge, obsession with order and hatred of Morsi’s supporters may pave the way for an irreversible polarization of society and a potential radicalization of the Islamists.
The verdict brought into the open the machinations of a dysfunctional and increasingly out-of-control judiciary system, in this case epitomized by a renegade judge infamous for harsh sentences.
“There are elements of the judiciary that are enthusiastic participants in the repression,” says Nathan Brown, an expert on Egypt at George Washington University.
Brown says the aggressive role of the judiciary marks a new phase in the decades-long struggle against the country’s oldest and largest Islamist group, in which the security apparatus and judiciary collude in crushing dissidence. This collusion, Brown says, differs “from past waves of repression, in which the regime tended to move around the regular judiciary in order to use its harshest measures.”
For the 80 or so lawyers in charge of the case, there is no doubt that the real criminals should be punished for the police station attack, in which, in addition to the officer who was killed, many were injured.
“It was a real chaos. People used knives, guns, even machine guns,” says Ahmad Chabeeb, the lawyer for 30 men among those convicted, including two members of the Brotherhood.
At the time of the incident at the police station, Minya, on the west bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt, was already notorious for its sectarian tensions. The city has one of the highest concentrations of Christian Copts in the country as well as a reputation as a nexus for Islamist radicals, including those who led an anti-government insurgency in the 1990s. In its many dirt alleyways, cramped in between modest brick houses, where even small, agile Indian-style tuk-tuks struggle to navigate, street fights are common, especially between men who are young and unemployed.
But the 2013 coup seems to have unleashed a new kind of viciousness into Minya’s long-dormant hatreds and rivalries.
We did not even have time to defend our clients. This is an insult to the judiciary system.
lawyer for 30 of the convicted men
Violence erupted throughout Egypt on Aug. 14 after news spread that Egyptian security forces had brutally broken up two sit-ins of Morsi’s supporters in Cairo, killing hundreds. Like a seismic riposte, the province of Minya, about 150 miles from the Egyptian capital, broke out with clashes for three days. Churches were burned. Stores were destroyed. Schools were vandalized. In Matai, one of the province’s nine cities, a mob of angry men stormed the police station.
Those who supported the coup called for revenge against the Brotherhood and its supporters. They saw acts of hooliganism and sectarian violence by Morsi sympathizers as intended to restore the president and the Muslim Brotherhood to power.
It was in this climate that the incident at the police station occurred and set the stage for Judge Saeed Youssef’s sentence.
The judge has long been regarded as a singular force in Minya.
“He has been working here for more than 30 years,” says Tareq Fouda, head of the Minya branch of the Lawyers Union. “In Minya he has a reputation of being a vicious man and for issuing strong sentences. Once, he sentenced with 15 years in jail a man just because he was found in possession of a weapon.”
The verdict astonished jurists, even those critical of the Brotherhood, some of whom described it as a “sham.”
“It’s absurd,” complains Chabeeb. The verdict, he says, was announced after two brief sessions of less than an hour each, and about 400 of those convicted were sentenced, like Qorani, in absentia.
Chabeeb and his colleagues were barred from attending the second session. “We did not even have time to defend our clients,” he says, sitting in his office in Minya. “This is an insult to the judiciary system.”
He and other lawyers say many of the defendants had alibis: They were at home or at work on the day of the incident. Among those who claim they weren’t even near the scene is Qorani, who remains on the run.
“He injured his knee the day before,” says Gamel. “So we decided to stay at home with the kids.”
The judge apparently never allowed for such testimony.
Even more confusing to Gamel is the fact that after being released on bail and until the sentence was declared, Qorani was allowed to resume his work as a preacher.
“If he were such a big criminal, they would have barred him from the mosque,” she says.
Can you kill my sons and burn my house and then say, ‘Let’s sit and negotiate?’
governor of Minya
In yet another show of arbitrary judicial action, Youssef sentenced to death one of the lawyers, Ahmed Eid, who was defending the suspects in the trial. Two months earlier, Eid was suddenly been summoned and arrested by shadowy security forces. His family says this was possibly in retaliation for getting scores of defendants released on bail.
“I don’t see any problem in punishing the criminals,” says Fouda, who supported the coup. “The Muslim Brothers are terrorists. They need to be punished. But give me a fair trial.”
News of the verdict sparked international outrage. Another mass trial in Upper Egypt, previously scheduled for the end of March, has been postponed to April 28.
“I admit that it’s a grave and harsh decision. But it’s not the final verdict,” Egypt Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told Le Figaro newspaper in a recent interview.
But even if the death sentences are almost certain to be reduced, neither pro-government media nor government officials have made efforts to ease the tensions and encourage reconciliation. In fact, their provocative rhetoric has raised worries among family members of the convicted about the long-term impact of the verdict in this small town.
“I welcome the equity and the probity of our judiciary system,” said Ahmad Moussa, a controversial talk-show host on a private channel, shortly after the court decision, before saying of the convicted men, “Burn them. Burn their bodies. Burn their clothes.”
In his spacious office overlooking the Nile, Salah Ziada, governor of Minya, doesn’t hide his zeal for crushing the Brotherhood.
“Can you kill my sons and burn my house and then say, ‘Let’s sit and negotiate?’” he asks.
In a meeting with a small group of international journalists, he described a conspiracy in which “criminals were hired by the Brotherhood to create a security vacuum in the country” as part of “an American plot to create another Syria or Iraq.”
Within Egypt’s increasingly nasty politics of revenge, even men of law tend to lose their sense of integrity. “There may have been some minor mistakes in the procedures, but I still think it was a fair trial,” says Sherif Ebrahim, a lawyer for some Christian families whose house was burned in the city of Minya.
After the sentence was announced, he says, “the Christians welcomed the news with joy and relief.” Meanwhile, Morsi supporters organized a protest that was quickly crushed by security forces, though daily confrontations between anti-government activists and the police continue.
“Today there is a real feeling of injustice,” says Omar Abdel Basset, a student and one of the rare Brotherhood supporters willing to speak publicly. “How come no one has been sentenced yet for the death of many of our friends who got killed during the revolution against Mubarak? In the meantime, the same justice hurries up to convict 500 men for the killing of one policeman.”
He warns, “Some individuals who faced torture and unfair sentences may end up resorting to violence.”
In the meantime, the lives of the people caught up in Egypt’s justice system, regardless of whether the death sentences will be upheld, have been shattered.
Eid’s humble first-floor apartment resembles a mourning hall. The shades are closed. A framed picture of Eid, dressed in a suit and tie, stands on the dining table. He is being held in the New Valley prison, 600 kilometers from Matai, with no contact with his family.
“Why him? Why him?” asks his wife, Mahad Sayyed, a teacher of art, insisting that he had no ties to the Brotherhood. “He did not even vote for Morsi.”
For fear that police may raid her home, Gamel has moved in with her parents. She barely leaves their apartment. With the regime’s appetite for retribution so clearly on display, even close friends and family members have declined to offer potentially exculpatory testimony on Qorani’s behalf. “We live in a state of fear and punishment,” Gamel says, acknowledging that she remains frightened that her husband may be executed. “I wear black every day,” she adds, pointing to her dark veil. “The whole city is covered in black.”