MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

March 24, 2014
An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi to death for an assault on a Minya police station that left a senior police officer dead. The attack on the police stations occurred shortly after security forces cleared two large pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14. Said Youssef, the head of the Minya criminal court, issued the controversial verdict in just the second session of the trial after barring defense attorneys from entering the court room on Monday.

The unprecedented verdict is likely to be overturned according to legal experts. Of the 529 convicted less than 160 were present in the court at the time of the verdict, the rest sentenced in absentia. Another seventeen defendants were acquitted. The verdict has been referred to the Egyptian government’s official mufti, who must ratify all death sentences; however, death sentences issued in absentia are automatically retried.

According to several defense attorneys Youssef rammed through the verdict without conducting a fair trial. "We didn't have the chance to say a word or to look at more than 3,000 pages of investigation to see what evidence they are talking about," said Khaled al-Koumi, a lawyer representing ten of the defendants. Another defense attorney said that Youssef’s behavior violated the defendants’ rights. According to Mohamed Tousson, Youssef became “angry and adjourned the trial for sentencing after one attorney requested the judge recues himself from the case

In the opening session of the trial on Saturday, several defense attorneys asked Youssef to postpone the trial to allow them more time to investigate the charges. When Youssef denied their request the attorneys protested. Youssef responded by shouting at the defense telling them that they would not dictate how he ran his court room before telling them the verdict would be rendered Monday.

On Monday security forces surrounded the court house and barred the defense from entering the court room. According to Osama Metwali, the Minya police chief, the judge had ordered the measures due to “disruptions in the previous session.” After the verdict was announced local security forces raised went on alert due to the possibility of large scale demonstrations in the province.

The verdict was the first in a series of mass trials that Egypt’s justice system will be tackling in the coming months. The Egyptian justice system is currently backlogged trying to process the large number of arrests made during the recent crackdown on Islamists.

The verdict comes just one week after an officer was sentenced to ten years in prison and three others given one year suspended sentences for their role in the deaths thirty-seven detainees last August.

Several members of the international community, as well as local human rights organizations, condemned the verdict. State department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States was “shocked” by the verdict. She added, “It defies logic that a fair trial could be conducted according to international standards,” in such a short period of time. William Hague, the British Foreign Minister, expressed deep concern over the verdict and urged “Egyptian authorities to ensure full respect for defendants’ rights.” The European Union parliament tweeted that they were “appalled” by the verdict. Amnesty International issued harsh condemnation of the verdict calling it a “grotesque example of the shortcomings and the selective nature of Egypt's justice system.”  Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International, said “This is injustice writ large and these death sentences must be quashed. Imposing death sentences of this magnitude in a single case makes Egypt surpass most other countries’ use of capital punishment in a year.”

In a statement issued on Monday, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton expressed her concern over the verdict, saying, "The EU opposes capital punishment under all circumstances. The death penalty is cruel and  inhuman, fails to act as a deterrent and represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity." She called on Egyptian authorities "to ensure, in line with international standards, the defendants' rights to a fair and timely trial based on clear charges and proper and independent investigations, as well as the right of access and contact to lawyers and family members." Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Tuesday describing the trial as a sham. “It’s shocking even amid Egypt’s deep political repression that a court has sentenced 529 people to death without giving them any meaningful opportunity to defend themselves,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Rupert Colville, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a press briefing on Tuesday said, The mass imposition of the death penalty after a trial rife with procedural irregularities is in breach of international human rights law." He added, "It is particularly worrying that there are thousands of other defendants who have been detained since last July on similar charges."

In Egypt, sixteen human rights organizations, among them the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, issued a joint statement condemning the ruling. The trial, the statement said, "represent[s] a grave violation of the right to a fair trial and of other principles, most prominently the principle of individualized punishment, which is enshrined in the Egyptian constitution." The statement called on gurantees for "a fair trial, including, first and foremost, the right to defense and to an attorney and the right to be charged with a specific offense backed by evidence, as well as adequate time to prepare a defense and response."

The Muslim Brotherhood also issued a statement on their English language portal, Ikhwanweb, saying the organization will take legal action against the verdict. The statement said the ruling was "another clear indication that the corrupt judiciary is being utilized by the coup commanders to suppress the Egyptian revolution and install a brutal regime which has already surpassed decades long of oppression and tyranny in Egypt's history." 

Several Egyptian media outlets have published reports documenting several of Youssef’s questionable rulings. According to the Egyptian daily Al-Shorouk Youssef sentenced a man to thirty years in prison for robbing a women’s clothing store. On May 6, he sentenced another man to fifteen years in prison for harassing a female high school student.  In January, 2013, he acquitted several officers charged with killing protesters during the January 25 Revolution.

The death penalty has long been a part of the modern-Egyptian penal code. At least 709 individuals were sentenced to death, with only 249 reaching execution between the years 1981-2000. According to Al-Ahram capital punishment has become more common in Egypt since 2009.