FACTBOX: Backlash Over Egypt’s Mass Trials

On April 28, another 683 Morsi supporters were sentenced to death in a mass trial before the same Minya judge who sentenced 529 defendants to death late last month. Following is a summary of where each verdict stands, local and international responses to the verdict, as well as the Egyptian government’s response to criticisms of the mass trials. 
Death Sentences

Minya 529: On March 24, 529 defendants were sentenced to death by Judge Youssef Said on charges related to violence that took place on August 14, in the wake of the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit in in Raba’a al-Adaweya. According to initial reports, of the 529, at least 381 were sentenced in absentia, allowing them an automatic retrial. The verdicts were handed down during the second session of the trial.

On April 28, following the Grand Mufti’s review of the sentences, 37 of the death sentences were upheld, while the remaining 492 were commuted to life sentences (25 years in prison in Egypt.) 381 were sentenced in absentia, with 147 present in the court according to Aswat Masriya.

The death sentence for the 37 defendants can also be appealed, and lawyers have confirmed their intention to do so. The appeals cannot be submitted until the judge publishes the reasoning for his verdict, within the coming sixty days. The public prosecutor Hisham Barakat, appealed the verdict in a routine procedure on Monday. The appeal will include the seventeen acquittals handed down on March 24, as well as the sentences issued on April 28. In the statement, however, the prosecutor expressed concern over “the proper administration of justice and application of the correct law.”

Minya 683: On April 28, the same court sentenced 683 Morsi supporters on charges of attacking the Adawa police station, and killing a police officer, also following the August 14 protest dispersals. They were also found guilty of rioting, vandalism, inciting violence, attacking police officers, and violence. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, is among the defendants.

The court has set June 21 to issue to the final verdict, after the sentences have been reviewed by the Grand Mufti. The law allows the verdicts to be appealed, with the defense lawyers confirming their intention to do so.   

All death sentences are sent to the Grand Mufti’s office for review as a formality. The Mufti is not legally obliged to offer a decision, and the decision is not legally binding.  

Other Hefty Sentences

On April 26 the same judge sentenced eleven defendants to 55 to 85 years in prison. They were charged with attacking police stations in late August.  

On April 27 the same judge sentenced another 37 defendants to five to forty five years in jail. Meanwhile in Kafr al-Sheikh, another judge sentenced twelve defendants to seventeen years in prison, and another to twenty years.

Local Response to the Mass Trials

Strong Egypt: The verdicts given “without evidence or eye witnesses or hearings or interrogation” – are meant to “bring down the state.” The party warned that such sentences would make the people lose confidence in judicial authority as well other authorities in the country. It called on Egyptians to find peaceful ways to reject the current regime’s attempts to “bring down the state” so that Egypt would be protected from “chaos.”

Arab Organization for Human Rights: The verdicts in both cases are unprecedented, and were delivered without allowing defense lawyers to perform their duties. It represents an unprecedented expansion in the use of the death penalty, which is in violation of Egypt’s obligations towards human rights. [Complete Statement (Arabic)]

Egyptian human rights organizations: Eighteen human rights organizations, among them the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, issued a joint statement expressing its concern over the verdicts. They condemned what they described as the use of the judiciary to silence political opponents, and called on the ministry of justice to refer the cases to the Supreme Judicial Council for investigation. The statement was also critical of the speed at which the trials took place, saying that the accused were not afforded the chance to defend themselves, adding that the court did not follow due process in both trials. [Complete Statement (Arabic)]

Freedom and Justice Party: The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) denounces the new mass death sentences issued by the Criminal Court of Minya against 683 citizens perceived as coup critics. Those sentences are in fact a new crime of horrendous genocide committed by the military council and its candidate who has ruled Egypt since the coup, and dreams to rule over its people more formally soon. The FJP also announced its intention to file a lawsuit against the verdict in the International Criminal Court, according to Al Masry Al Youm. [Complete Statement]

Nour Party: The Nour Party’s Talaat Marzouq described the verdict as “shocking,” saying they could lead Egypt into a “dark tunnel.” He called on interim president Adly Mansour to amend Egypt’s criminal procedure code. He added that the verdict does not respect the international treaties to which Egypt is a signatory, which state that the death penalty cannot be applied without conclusive evidence. Marzouq also invoked Article 96 of the constitution which states “The accused is innocent until proven guilty in a fair court of law, which provides guarantees for him to defend himself.” Stressing his rejection of violence and condemning it in all its forms, Marzouq called on the relatives of the defendants and their lawyers to appeal the verdict, adding that the law allows that they can take the case to the Supreme Judicial Council.

International Responses to the Mass Trials

Amnesty International: Today’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 or impartial. [Complete Statement]

US State Department: The United States is deeply concerned by today’s Egyptian court actions related to another mass trial and preliminary death sentences as well as the banning of the April 6 Youth Movement activities. Today’s preliminary death sentences against 683 defendants and the upholding of death sentences against 37 defendants from a March 25 decision are unconscionable. As the Secretary has said, it is impossible to believe that such proceedings could satisfy even the most basic standards of justice, let alone meet Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law. We again urge Egyptian authorities to remedy the situation and reverse these court rulings and ensure due process for the accused on the merits of individual cases. We continue to urge the Egyptian Government to suspend future mass trials of Egyptians. [Complete Statement]

White House: The United States is deeply troubled by the continued use of mass trials and sentencing in Egypt, and particularly by today’s death sentence against 683 defendants.  Today’s verdict, like the one last month, defies even the most basic standards of international justice.  The Egyptian government has the responsibility to ensure that every citizen is afforded due process, including the right to a fair trial in which evidence is clearly presented, and access to an attorney.  While judicial independence is a vital part of democracy, this verdict cannot be reconciled with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law.  Egyptian leaders must take a stand against this illogical action and dangerous precedent, recognizing that the repression of peaceful dissent will fuel the instability and radicalization that Egypt says it wishes to prevent. [Complete Statement]

US Senator Patrick Leahy: As the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the State Department and Foreign Operations, I have watched this unfolding situation with great interest, and with growing dismay. I am extremely disturbed by the Egyptian Government’s flouting of human rights and appalling abuse of the justice system, which are fundamental to any democracy. I am not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military until we have a better understanding of how the aid would be used, and we see convincing evidence that the government is committed to the rule of law.

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton:  These mass trials are clearly in breach of international human rights law: the exact charges against each defendant remain unclear, the proceedings lack the most basic standards of due process and the verdicts appear grossly disproportionate, failing short of complying with the principle of individual sentencing.  The EU reiterates its call on the Egyptian judicial 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. [Complete Statement]

Turkey: Turkey’s president, ministry of foreign affairs, and deputy prime minister, each condemned the April 28 verdict. The official MFA statement read: “Such verdicts are incompatible with the universal principles of law, including in particular the right to a fair trial and the right to life and clearly violate the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We call on the international community to react accordingly to these unacceptable rulings.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: It is outrageous that for the second time in two months, the Sixth Chamber of the Criminal Court in Al-Minya has imposed the death sentence on huge groups of defendants after perfunctory trials. In defiance of worldwide pleas for Egypt to respect its human rights obligations after 529 people were sentenced to death in March by the same court, hundreds now face a similar fate at the hands of a judicial system where international fair trial guarantees appear to be increasingly trampled upon. It is high time that Egypt takes its human rights commitments seriously.

Iran Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Marzieh Afkham: Issuing such verdicts could have many social and political consequences and encourage Egypt’s enemies to exploit the current situation.

Human Rights Watch: Egypt is handing out death sentences like candy. These staggering verdicts are one more piece of evidence of just how broken the Egyptian judicial system is.

Swedish Foreign Minister:

French Foreign Ministry: France is repeating its calls for the Egyptian authorities to guarantee a fair trial for the defendants, based on an independent investigation that respects the rights of the defendants and adheres to international standards and the Egyptian constitution.

German President Joachim Gauck:  We cannot understand such a domineering judgment by a temporary government to a society in transition, especially in transition periods, a superior jurisdiction system should be established rather than taking revenge.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: The hundreds of death sentences make a mockery of what we understand to be democratic principles. The Egyptian authorities are risking further destabilization of their country and a cementing of political and social divisions ahead of the presidential elections in May. (Germany summoned the Egyptian ambassador over the mass death sentences.)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: The Secretary-General is alarmed by the news that another preliminary mass death sentence has been handed down today in Egypt, the first of which was on 24 March. Verdicts that clearly appear not to meet basic fair trial standards, particularly those which impose the death penalty, are likely to undermine prospects for long-term stability. As such, the Secretary-General is conscious of the regional and security implications of such sentences. Stability in Egypt is essential for the overall stability of the entire North Africa and Middle East region.

Egypt Government Response

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement calling on the international community to “respect the independence of the judiciary.”

In response to a question about the verdict, while speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said:

“…the whole society is going through a transformation. We will do that with  clear objectives. There is a separation of powers that exist today. As we build a modern Egypt,  the relationship between these powers will remain independent, but each one of them will  develop themselves. If you look at the judicial system, for example, the same system corrected  itself today again on a previous decision, even before getting into the appeal process, which still is before any of those accused.
So don’t jump to conclusions that a case is determined one way or the other before it is.
And secondly, let the legal process follow through. The attorney general, if I’m not mistaken,
has actually announced that he is going to appeal a number of the previous verdicts which were
issued. This one still has a very long process.”

The ministry of justice also issued a statement in response to the backlash, explaining the following:

1 –     All defendants who were sentenced to death are being tried before an ordinary court and by a natural judge not by an extraordinary court.

2 –    The judge has issued, after listening to the testimony of eyewitnesses, a decision, and not a ruling, referring their papers to the Mufti of the Republic for consultation. This opinion of the Mufti is not mandatory. After referring back the papers to the court, the judge has the right to uphold the Mufti’s opinion or change it.

 3 –   All defendants have the right, in case a death or lifetime imprisonment sentence is issued, to challenge the verdict at the Court of Cassation. Also, the public prosecution has the right to challenge the death sentence even if the defendants would not challenge it. More and above, the Court of Cassation has the right either to challenge the ruling, uphold it or refer to another court for looking into the case from the very beginning. Even if the new court would issue a death sentence, the defendants could for the second time challenge this ruling. In this case, the Court of Cassation settles the whole case. The public prosecution has already challenged the death sentence against 38 defendants in the case No. 4873 for the year 2013, Matai Criminal Court.

4 –     Most of the indicted defendants- whose number reaches 608 – according to the court decision referring their papers to the Mufti for confirming their death sentences, have been tried in absentia. Therefore, in case of showing up in court, they have the right to stand trial at court and put forth their argument defending themselves. The court, in this case, should listen to them and re-start all measures of the case once again at the same court.

5 –   The Ministry of Justice is confirming that one of the basic principles of any democratic system is that of separation among authorities and the independence of the judiciary along with non-interference on part of the executive authority in the works of the judicial authority and that no internal or external quarters have the right to comment on court rulings whatever these quarters are as this is deemed undermining the sovereignty of the judiciary.