Despite the lifting of Egypt’s state of emergency, at least 36 men remain at risk of execution following convictions by grossly unfair emergency courts, Amnesty International said today. The organization is aware of at least two men who were executed after unfair trials by emergency courts in the past three years and calls for the 36 men to be granted re-trials that meet international fair trial standards without recourse to the death penalty.
The state of emergency, which came into force in April 2017, allowed for the creation of Emergency State Security Courts (ESSCs), which are inherently unfair. Despite the lifting of the state of emergency, ongoing trials of hundreds of individuals, including human rights defenders and peaceful protesters, are set to continue.
“The Egyptian president must immediately quash all death sentences passed by emergency courts and order retrials in front of regular courts without recourse to the death penalty. To impose the death penalty in grossly unfair trials where defendants are refused the right to appeal constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of the right to life,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, said.
“Chillingly, Egypt has already executed at least 83 people so far this year, some following convictions in proceedings that made a mockery of justice. The Egyptian authorities should immediately establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, with a view to abolishing this cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment once and for all.”
Egyptian authorities executed Ibrahim Ismail in December 2019 and Moataz Hassan in July 2021. Both were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in two separate trials by ESSCs. Neither man was allowed to lodge an appeal.
Defendants in ESSC trials are routinely subjected to a number of other violations of fair trial rights, including being denied the right to adequate time and facilities for the preparation of their defence, the right to communicate with counsel of their own choosing and the right to a public hearing.
Sentenced to death, denied the right to appeal
Sixteen of the 36 men facing execution were sentenced to death on 29 July 2021 by an emergency court in Rashed. Nine were convicted of murder in relation to an attack on a police bus in al-Behira, located northwest of Cairo, in August 2015 that killed three policemen and wounded others, years before the state of emergency was declared. The remaining seven men were convicted of aiding that murder. The other 22 men sentenced to death were convicted of murder, bombings and membership of terrorist groups by ESSCs between 2019 and 2021.
In the al-Behira trial, the judge relied only on torture-tainted “confessions” and testimonies by policemen, refused to allow defence lawyers to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses, rejected requests by defence lawyers to examine evidence that may have exonerated the defendants, including their cellular tower data. In addition, the judge acknowledged in the verdict that the defendants’ lawyers were not present during their clients’ questioning by prosecutors.
Several defendants in the trial said they were tortured while in detention. A source familiar with the trial told Amnesty International that one man who was sentenced to death said he had been beaten and given electric shocks during questioning until he gave a videotaped “confession,” which he later tried to retract.
Two brothers sentenced to death in the case – Ahmed al-Zarea, 31 and Al-Motaseem al-Zarea, 28 – were held incommunicado from their detention on 31 August and 4 September 2015 respectively until 14 September 2015. A source familiar with their case told Amnesty International that the two brothers were subjected to beatings and electric shocks by policemen from the National Security Agency (NSA), a secretive police agency, during detention.
NSA officers ignored a judge’s order to release them pending investigations on 26 February 2018 and instead took them to an undisclosed location, thus subjecting them to enforced disappearance. They were taken to a prosecutor on 7 April 2018 and questioned over accusations of “membership in a terrorist group” and “protesting illegally”. They were again placed in pretrial detention until a judge ordered their provisional release on 9 June 2018. The NSA forced them to report to its offices on a weekly basis as part of an extrajudicial probation measure referred to by victims and the NSA as “monitoring”.
The brothers have been detained separately in the notorious Tora Maximum Security 1 “al-Aqrab” and Maximum Security 2 and banned from receiving family visits. In total, the NSA has accused Ahmed al-Zarea in five separate cases and Al-Motaseem in two separate cases, with all charges related to membership of a terrorist group and illegally protesting. In the only case that moved to trial, two separate courts acquitted Ahmed al-Zarea of all charges.
“Ahmed Al-Zarea and Al-Motaseem Al-Zarea were subjected to a catalogue of horrific violations, including repeated torture, enforced disappearance, prolonged arbitrary detention and grave breaches of their fair trial rights – and now their lives are at risk. The authorities must ensure that ‘confessions’ extracted through torture or coercion are never used as evidence in court and must investigate all allegations of enforced disappearance and torture,” said Philip Luther.
On 25 October 2021, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi announced that he would not extend Egypt’s state of emergency, in force since April 2017 following the twin bombing of two churches that left 45 people dead.
Article 19 of the law governing the state of emergency stipulates that ongoing trials are to continue even after the state of emergency is no longer in force. The president, however, retains the power to authorize, quash or commute verdicts or to order a retrial.
In September 2021, Egypt launched a five-year national human rights strategy, which stipulates that the right to defence in death penalty cases is deeply connected to the right to life. The strategy also noted the need to implement the constitutional requirement of enabling defendants to appeal against verdicts by all criminal courts.
Egypt has executed at least 83 individuals so far in 2021, many of whom were convicted in unfair trials. Some were executed in secret, with family members and loved ones deliberately kept uninformed and denied final visits, which contravenes Egyptian law.