One Reason Egyptian Mass Trials Are a Bad Idea: Four-Year-Olds Get Life in Prison

A four-year-old's sentencing in Egypt has shed light on the country's controversial mass trials.

[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 8: An Egyptian protester waves the Egyptian flag during protests in Tahrir Square on February 8, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. The eighteen-day uprising led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011.  (Photo by Jonathan Rashad)
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 8: An Egyptian protester waves the Egyptian flag during protests in Tahrir Square on February 8, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. The eighteen-day uprising led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. (Photo by Jonathan Rashad)
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] CAIRO, EGYPT - FEBRUARY 8: An Egyptian protester waves the Egyptian flag during protests in Tahrir Square on February 8, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. The eighteen-day uprising led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. (Photo by Jonathan Rashad)

Four-year-old Ahmed Mansour Karni did not bother appearing in an Egyptian military court last week to hear that he was being sentenced to life in prison for murder, attempted murder, vandalization, and threatening the police.

That’s because the crimes the court said he committed took place in early 2013 -- around nine months before the child’s second birthday.

But despite repeated appeals from his family, the child’s name somehow still ended up on the list of some 115 defendants sentenced all at once in the West Cairo court last Tuesday.

Four-year-old Ahmed Mansour Karni did not bother appearing in an Egyptian military court last week to hear that he was being sentenced to life in prison for murder, attempted murder, vandalization, and threatening the police.

That’s because the crimes the court said he committed took place in early 2013 — around nine months before the child’s second birthday.

But despite repeated appeals from his family, the child’s name somehow still ended up on the list of some 115 defendants sentenced all at once in the West Cairo court last Tuesday.

His father, Mansour, explained on Egyptian television Saturday that security forces came to his family’s door in 2014 asking for his son. When he showed them the toddler, they realized they must have made a mistake, and arrested him instead. Mansour said that he then spent four months in prison waiting to appear before a judge who quickly realized there had been a name mix-up and released him without charges.

That administrative error was somehow not effectively communicated to the military court that handled last week’s trial, and ultimately sentenced his son in absentia for crimes he could not possibly have committed.  

According to Egyptian news outlet al-Ahram, Interior Ministry spokesman Abu-Bakr Abdel-Karim called into the television show on Dream TV Saturday to explain that the police were actually looking for the child’s middle-aged uncle, who has a similar name, and that the four-year-old’s name will be removed from the case. The child’s lawyer, however, told the TV show that he understood the police had actually been looking for a 16-year-old with the same name when they first arrested Mansour in 2014.

Marina Ottaway, a Middle East scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Foreign Policy Monday that it’s not uncommon for Egyptians to share names with one another, and that Egyptian security forces’ unwillingness to double-check records before they make arrests is part of a larger pattern of unaccountability in the country.

“It’s just incredibly sloppy and they can afford to be that sloppy because they aren’t held accountable,” she said.

According to the Jerusalem Post, defense attorney Faisal al-Sayd said that the fact the court got past the sentencing stage of the hearing before realizing their mistake “proves that the judge did not read the case.”

Mansour, who appeared on Egyptian television holding his sleeping four-year-old, begged police not to take the child away. And for now, at least, it looks like the family will be spared any more immediate harm, although the child’s bizarre legal nightmare could flare up later if the court fails to officially wipe his record clean.

According to Ottaway, many other families that faced similar mix-ups are not so lucky. She told FP that mass trials have become more common and more disorganized since the 2011 uprisings that toppled longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak. The situation is getting even worse under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who she said is running a government that is “incredibly nervous and anxious” about further political protests.

“Had he not been a four-year-old but had been even a 16-year-old or an adult, the problem would have been extremely difficult to solve,” Ottaway said. “They cast as broad a net as possible and whichever fish comes up first gets brought to trial.”

In this case, the fish just happened to be a toddler.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images

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