By Mohamed ElMessiry, Egypt Researcher at Amnesty International, who attended the sentencing hearing in El Minya
“Welcome to the village of death penalties”, lawyer Ahmed Shabeeb told me as I arrived in the village of Mattay earlier this week. I went there to meet the families of some of the 528 people on trial who would the next day receive confirmation of their sentences, including dozens of death sentences, for their alleged involvement in political violence last year.
Ahmed Shabeeb pointed to the street where his office is and told me that there were at least eight people living there who were among the 528. There is no street in the whole village where you cannot find families of some of those on trial, he told me.
Detention of a doctor
He described the trial of his brother, a doctor in Mattay Hospital, as a “complete joke”. Security forces arrested him after midnight on 28 August 2013. Ahmed did not know that his brother was being held in Mattay Police Station until the day after his arrest. He rushed to the police station, only to find that his brother was accused of breaking the curfew. When he heard the news, Ahmed said he felt he could breathe again – his brother was only accused of a minor offence, and anyway, doctors were excluded from the curfew because of the nature of their work.
Ahmed represented his brother during the questioning by the prosecutor, who ordered his release. But the police did not let Ahmed’s brother go. Instead, he faced a new accusation: failing to treat the deputy head of Mattay Police Station in the hospital on 14 August. During fresh questioning by the Prosecution, Ahmed’s brother protested the accusation – as a general practitioner, he could not have treated the man, who had needed emergency surgery. He said that there were no other surgeons in the hospital that day – all had fled after the security forces failed to protect the hospital from the angry mob outside.
The prosecutor again ordered Ahmed’s brother’s release. Once again, security forces did not let him go. Instead, he faced a new accusation that he had told the mob that the police official had survived, after which the mob stormed the hospital and murdered him.
Ahmed’s brother was held in detention for 70 days before he was finally released and left Egypt. Ahmed laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. How can a person accused of murder be released and then allowed to leave the country, he asked.
Held arbitrarily, hours away from home
At Ahmed’s office, I then met the family of another of the 528 who were angry about the verdicts. I tried to explain Amnesty International’s work. Their response was: “We do not want to talk. Nothing will change: in our street there are at least 10 people among the 528. What can we do or what can you do? There is no justice in this country anymore; we do not trust anyone except God.”
Their cousin is held in Al Wadi Al Gadid Prison, they said, eight hours from Mattay. They said that in order to see him they have to leave at night to be there in the morning, but they can only see him for three minutes. Who will cover the expenses of the families of those detained arbitrarily, they asked.
Lawyer sentenced to life in prison
I then met the parents of Ahmed Eid, a lawyer who is also among the 528. When I arrived, his father took me upstairs to meet his wife and children. The lawyer’s wife was depressed and her eyes were full of tears. The father began by showing me all the documents of the case. He said that Ahmed Eid had been representing 66 people accused of the attacks on Mattay Police Station on 14 August. He showed me the prosecutor’s documents, where Ahmed Eid attended the investigations with the defendants. Ahmed Eid did not know that he was among the accused, he said.
Ahmed Eid’s wife said that on 22 January, police dressed in civilian clothes came to their house and searched it while the lawyer was away. They took the children’s computer because they thought it belonged to Ahmed Eid. Then, on 24 January, Ahmed received a phone call from the police station asking him to go to discuss a matter related to the case. As soon as Ahmed Eid went to the police he was arrested. The case was referred to court on 25 January. Ahmed Eid languished in detention until he was sentenced to life in prison. In all that time, he was never questioned by the Prosecution or the Court.
A mockery of justice
Yesterday I went to the El Minya court complex, which was marked by an intense security presence from police and military. No relatives or journalists were allowed in. Outside, I found the families of the more than 1,200 accused in two separate cases both related to the attack on Mattay and Adwa Police Stations and the killing of two police officers related to political violence following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi. I was able to enter the court and met Ahmed Shabeeb inside the building. He did not enter the courtroom itself, telling me that he was very stressed and scared and could not bear to hear the verdict.
Inside the courtroom, the defendants’ cage was completely empty. None of the defendants had been brought to hear the judgment. There was a heavy security presence – masked officers armed with machine guns standing behind the judge.
The head judge started to read the judgment. After taking the opinion of the Grand Mufti, he said, the court had decided that 37 were to be hanged to death. The judge started to read the names. Then he said the rest are to face life in prison . At first, the judge seemed calm. Then, as he continued to read the verdict, he raised his tone of voice until he began to shout. No one could tell me why he did so.
In a remarkable about-turn, after reading the complete judgment, the judge urged the prosecutor to challenge the verdicts of those sentenced to prison sentences and to file again for the death penalty.
More mass death sentences sought
The same judge then started to read the judgment for the 683 people in the separate Al Adwa case involving more allegations of political violence. Again, none of the defendants were present. The court had agreed that all of them should face the death penalty, and referred them to the Grand Mufti, whose opinion courts must seek before formally handing down death sentences. The judge also referred the defence lawyers who did not attend the only previous hearing in the trial to a disciplinary panel and fine of 50 Egyptian pounds (about US$7). The lawyers had refused to attend the trial on 25 March in protest at the fact that the court panel looking into the case was the same one which had referred the 528 from the Mattay case to the Grand Mufti just the day before.
I left the courtroom and went out to see the families screaming and crying and asking for justice. One woman fainted and fell; others were crying and asking God to help them.
The relatives of some of those tried told me that the entire village was angry with the court decision and that in every street in Adwa there were families affected by it. “This judgment is null,” one of them told me, “We have no one left except God. We do not trust the government anymore.” He said that his brother and four of his cousins are among the 683 whom the court said should be sentenced to death. He said that he had posted 5,250 EGP (US$750) to bail his brother out of prison, but his brother was never released.
A mother said that she was kicked in the prison while trying to visit her son. “We have no one left but God,” she told me.
Yesterday’s decisions once again expose how arbitrary and selective Egypt’s criminal justice system has become. The court has displayed a complete contempt for the most basic principles of a fair trial and has utterly destroyed its credibility. It is time for Egypt’s authorities to come clean and acknowledge that the current system is neither fair nor independent nor impartial.
Egypt unfair trial, death sentences make mockery of justice (News story, 28 April 2014)
Egypt: More than 500 sentenced to death in ‘grotesque’ ruling (News story, 24 March 2014)