On March 24 and after only two swift sessions, one of them lasting less than an hour, a court in the southern Egyptian city of Minya issued its verdict concerning 529 defendants, reportedly all members of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood. The court referred the papers of the defendants to the mufti, one of the country’s highest officials in Islamic affairs, asking for his opinion on hanging them.
Even by the standards of the Egyptian judiciary, which many local human rights groups have recently accused of corruption and partiality, this ruling constitutes a serious affront to justice. Never before in Egypt’s modern history have so many defendants been sentenced to death in one case and with such haste. Never before has an Egyptian court been so dismissive of basic requirements of the judicial process as stipulated by Egyptian law, denying, as it did, defense lawyers the chance to present their case, preventing witnesses from testifying and ignoring complaints by the defendants about the impartiality and competence of the sitting judge.
The court will issue its final ruling on April 28 after receiving the mufti’s opinion. If the mufti gives his approval to hang the defendants, these death sentences will most likely not be carried out, however. The 398 defendants tried in absentia will be entitled to a completely new trial if and when they are arraigned. Moreover, under Egyptian law, all death sentences issued by criminal courts are automatically referred to higher courts, which have the right to order a retrial, and the serious procedural errors committed by the court in this case are very likely to result in a retrial in front of a new circuit.
Even if the sentences are not carried out, this unprecedented court ruling should nevertheless be taken seriously. For one thing, it is a ruling that has been issued by a regular court rather than an exceptional tribunal established according to some emergency law, for example. Anti-terrorism laws have given courts leeway to hand down death sentences for a wide range of offenses. For example, on March 19 a Cairo court issued death sentences against 26 Muslim Brotherhood defendants after finding them guilty of founding a “terrorist group” with the aim of inciting violence against the army, the police and Christians and of attackingships passing through the Suez Canal.
This sentence of mass execution indicates problems plaguing the Egyptian legal system. These difficulties — such as the excessive recourse by courts to preventive custody, the abstention of the prosecution and the judges from overseeing and investigating places of detention and the occasional flouting by judges of explicit articles in the constitution — precede the army’s July 2013 takeover of the Egyptian government. The most serious of these problems is the judges’ lack of independence and the repeated interference by the executive in the judiciary, a problem that Egyptian democracy activists have been criticizing for nearly a decade.
Political pressure on the judiciary is not as simple as dictating rulings to judges. Rather, it comes in more subtle ways. Most often, it is by interfering in the process of assigning certain cases to particular circuits and by making sure that certain judges handle certain cases. Said Youssef Sabri, the judge who handed down this death sentence against 529 defendants, is known for his bias against both the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of the January Revolution. For example, in January 2013, he acquitted all police officers who had been accused of shooting to kill 10 demonstrators on Jan. 28, 2011, the so-called Friday of Rage. It is reported that Sabri’s strong pro-police bias is the result of having his son, a police officer, kidnapped and killed during the early days of the revolution.
Sabri’s views are well known, and the case against the Minya defendants included charges of killing a police officer. For these reasons, the defendants requested that their case be tried by a different judge. Sabri summarily dismissed the request. Thirty minutes into the first session of the trail, he lashed out, exclaiming “By God, I will hand them heavy sentences in the next session” — a promise that he kept.
Although the mass death sentence is unprecedented, there has been an alarming rise in the number of death sentences that regular Egyptian courts have been imposing in recent years. These sentences, moreover, often result from the public prosecutor’s doing shoddy work, turning a blind eye to the serious abuses committed by the police during investigations and interrogations. Torture in police stations and in other places of detention is endemic, and the faulty confessions that this torture often produces ground such draconian punishments.
It is therefore a mistake to assume that this appalling ruling represents an aberration in the Egyptian justice system. Rather, what it points to is the basic structural problem with the modern Egyptian state, not only the justice system. When millions of Egyptians took to the streets in 2011 shouting that the people demanded the downfall of the regime, they were effectively pointing out that the institutions of the state — primarily the police, the army, the judiciary and the media — were serving themselves and not the Egyptian people. It did not take long for the army generals, the police officers, the judges and the other henchmen of the Egyptian deep state to realize the dangers that the revolution represented to their interests and worldview. Viewed together with other recent court rulings that imprisoned journalists and revolutionary leaders, these appalling sentences for mass execution show the determination of the Egyptian state to maintain its oppressive stance toward the Egyptian people and to hit back with a vengeance against any challenge to its dominance.
Appalled by the state’s wanton disregard for human life, a group of Egyptians recently launched a campaign against capital punishment. The campaign is still in its infancy, and it has a long way to go. While it has to convince millions of Egyptians that the gallows cannot restore the peace and tranquillity they so desperately desire, the greatest challenge will be in insisting that no state — deep or shallow — has the right to kill its citizens.