As hundreds of young men are sentenced to death for the killing of one policeman, the state is gearing up to crush its Islamist enemies.
- By Bel TrewBel Trew is broadcast and print journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @beltrew.
CAIRO — Egyptian Judge Saeed Youssef Mohamed presided over the mass trial of 683 people on charges of murder, incitement to violence, and sabotage on March 25 — including Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie — in the southern Egyptian city of Minya. The defense lawyers in the case boycotted the proceedings, but Mohamed demanded that the case go forward anyway.
It’s not hard to see why the defendants might not like their chances. On March 24, Mohamed handed down one of the world’s largest death penalty verdicts ever, ruling that 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi would face the gallows for killing a police officer and attacking a police station last summer.
None of the accused or their lawyers was present on March 24, when Mohamed issued his sentence. The presiding judge in this Upper Egyptian court issued his damning ruling after a trial that lasted just two sessions. The verdict has not only dealt another blow to Egypt’s reputation abroad, but it has shown how far some elements of the state are prepared to go in crushing supporters of the former Islamist government. It is impossible to know whether Mohamed was acting alone or on orders from the central government.
The defendants, many of whom are members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, were accused of jointly murdering Mostafa El-Attar, deputy police commander of the southern town of Matay. The killing occurred on Aug. 14 in the aftermath of the forced dispersals of two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo that left hundreds dead.
The 545 people in the mass trial were also charged with attempting to murder two security officers, participating in an illegal rally, and vandalizing public and private property. Only 16 defendants were acquitted.
The news of the mass death sentence sent shock waves across the world. Human Rights Watch referred to the ruling as a "sham," while Amnesty International’s Middle East deputy director, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, said it was "the largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we’ve seen in recent years."
Not everyone, however, condemned the ruling. Several figures within pro-government Egyptian media celebrated the expanding crackdown on Morsi supporters. "I salute the fairness and justice of our judiciary in defiance of those killers and all those who attack it," said Ahmed Moussa, the presenter of a show on a private Egyptian satellite channel. "May they be 10,000 [sentenced to death], 20,000, not 500. We are not sad; we are happy."
The extraordinary hearings, which began on March 22, were in shambles from the beginning. During the first hearing, 147 defendants were crammed into a courtroom cage that had been specially modified to fit the enormous number of people on trial.
Judge Mohamed yelled at the defense lawyers, accusing them of being disruptive and "discussing politics," reported Reuters. The defense teams, meanwhile, furiously argued with him in an unsuccessful attempt to get the judge changed.
"We simply couldn’t prepare the court case in time. The case file is 4,000 pages long," said Ahmed Shabeeb, one of the defendants’ lawyers. "The court didn’t even listen to our request for more time. We couldn’t defend them," he said.
The hearing lasted just 45 minutes, during which key witnesses were barred from giving their testimonies. The judge then adjourned the session and demanded that the lawyers submit a written defense. "He didn’t even look at the evidence," Shabeeb said.
Two days later, Mohamed forbade the lawyers from attending the final hearing and issued the verdict to a courtroom of police officers.
The verdict, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that Egypt will actually execute the 529 defendants. The case will next head to the Court of Cassation, which examines whether the legal process of criminal court cases followed the letter of the law. In this case, the procedural errors were so blatant that it is unlikely that the verdict will be upheld, said Karim Ennarah, a criminal researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
But even if the sentence is not carried out, the verdict has propelled Egypt back into international headlines for all the wrong reasons — and has wrecked some tentative signs of improvement in the country’s human rights environment. Prominent secular activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who has been in jail since December and is on trial for allegedly organizing an illegal protest and assaulting a police officer, was finally released on bail on March 23. Meanwhile, interim President Adly Mansour personally wrote letters to jailed Al Jazeera correspondents Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy promising them a free and speedy trial.
This ruling, however, is a sign that some elements within the Egyptian state still favor a drastic escalation of violence against Morsi supporters. Doing so might come at the cost of the rule of law: After the trial’s March 22 opening session, Tarek Fouda, head of the lawyer’s syndicate in Minya, said that the presiding judge had "veered away from all legal norms and that he breached the rights of the defense."
Fouda promised to submit a report on what had occurred to Egypt’s justice minister. The Justice Ministry was unavailable for comment on the case.
"I think it’s safe to say all 529 people were not involved in collectively killing one police officer. That would be an unprecedented feat of group work," said Ennarah. He said March 24’s ruling was part of an "alarming" six-month trend of Egyptian courts giving "reckless and brutal rulings to intimidate and terrorize opposition protesters."
The families of those sentenced, meanwhile, have been thoroughly disillusioned about the state of the judicial process. For them, this is solely a political attack on supporters of the former Islamist government.
"We don’t even consider it a verdict. At first we were surprised by the huge numbers on trial; now we just think it’s nonsense," said Mohamed Hafez, whose two brothers, Hossam, 30, and Mostafa, 31, both businessmen, were sentenced to death on March 24.
Hafez told Foreign Policy that the investigation actually uncovered proof that his siblings are not in the Muslim Brotherhood — but they were sentenced to death anyway. "Maybe they’re trying to terrify people to stop going to demonstrations or oppose the regime," he said.
The verdict comes just a few months before Egyptians are supposed to vote for a new president — a critical step in the military-authored "road map to democracy." But as Egypt’s newest 529 occupants of death row can attest, the country remains a long way from the stability and rule of law that Morsi’s ouster was supposed to usher in.
"This is the largest death penalty in Egypt to the best of my knowledge," Mohamed Zaree, program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, concluded. "This is not a verdict; it is a massacre."