Today’s decision by a criminal court in El Minya, Upper Egypt to uphold death sentences against 183 supporters of Mohamed Morsi, including a blind man, provides alarming evidence of the Egyptian judiciary’s increasingly politicized and arbitrary attitude towards justice and the death penalty, said Amnesty International.
The sentences come hot on the heels of seven executions last week, the first in Egypt since 2011.
An Amnesty International representative present in the court said there was a heavy security presence, with at least 20 security officers, many of whom were masked and holding machine guns.
“In recent months Egyptian courts appear to have handed out death sentences at the drop of a hat, including in two mass trials based on flimsy evidence and deeply flawed proceedings,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“The verdicts in this case provide the latest example of the Egyptian judiciary’s bid to crush dissent. The Egyptian authorities must quash these sentences and order a fair retrial for all the defendants without recourse to the death penalty.”
The court had recommended death sentences for all 683 defendants during a hearing on 28 April after which the case was referred to Egypt’s Grand Mufti, who must be consulted before any death sentence can be formally imposed.
The sentencing followed a grossly unfair trial on 25 March in which the court panel questioned more than 50 witnesses and 74 defendants, without their lawyers present, in a matter of hours. Today, none of the defendants were brought to trial and families were not allowed to attend. One man was even sentenced to both the death penalty and 15 years in prison, causing confusion over how many death sentences had actually been imposed.
The 683 defendants had faced charges in connection with violence around the police station in the village of al-Adwa in the governorate of El Minya on 14 August 2013 following the bloody dispersal of a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in Cairo.
Over the past year there has been a surge in politically motivated verdicts in cases involving supporters of the former President Mohamed Morsi.
Earlier this week on 19 June, the Giza Criminal Court recommended death sentences for top Muslim Brotherhood leaders Mohamed Badie, Safwat Hegazi and Mohamed El-Beltagi, as well as 11 others in yet another example of politically motivated sentencing.
They were convicted of inciting violence among other charges in relation to clashes outside Al Istiqama mosque in Giza last August following the fall of former President Mohamed Morsi. The court is to issue the verdict on 3 August after consulting the Grand Mufti.
“At best, Egypt’s judicial system is erratic, and at worst its decisions raise serious concerns over its independence and impartiality. Clearly, Egypt’s judicial system is broken and no longer able to deliver justice. The death penalty is being ruthlessly deployed as a tool to eliminate political opponents. The death sentences recommended against prominent political leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood last week are an example of Egypt’s capricious criminal justice system in practice,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Not one police officer has been found guilty of being involved in violence since the ousting of the former President or the killing of up to 1,000 people on 14 August 2013 after security forces used excessive lethal force to disperse two pro-Morsi sit ins in Cairo.
“The Egyptian judiciary has lost any semblance of impartiality and credibility when security officers accused of gross human rights violations are allowed to walk free and thousands of political opponents are locked up,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Spike in death sentences, resumption of execution
There has been a notable spike in death sentences in cases that involve murder in connection with riots and mass demonstrations. According to information gathered by Amnesty International, since January 2014 the Egyptian judiciary has recommended the death penalty for 1,247 men pending the Grand Mufti’s religious opinion, and upheld death sentences against 247 men. All of them are Morsi supporters.
Since 16 June, six men and one woman convicted of murder and forced robbery were hanged in the first executions recorded by Amnesty International in Egypt since October 2011. In 2013, Amnesty International reported executions in only 22 countries worldwide, but Egypt now joins a small group of states that have resumed executions in the past two years after extended periods.
“These executions are a big step backwards for human rights in Egypt, making it the only North African country to have carried out judicial executions in the last three years,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.