Politicized Verdicts Mean No Real Accountability in Egypt

Much of the world’s press has been focused on an Egyptian trial in which 529 people were sentenced to death on March 24. What the press has failed to focus on is the root cause behind this, and three other mass trials in which 1,618 defendants will stand before the same judge: the violence that led to the destruction of over sixty churches  and the death of seventy people, in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya alone, on August 14 last year. 

The four trials in question relate to violence that took place in Minya on August 14 and in the days that followed. These 529 defendants were charged specifically with rioting and attacking a police station, which led to the murder of a police officer. More than a month after Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, as security forces violently dispersed a pro-Morsi sit-in at Raba’a al-Adaweya Square, retribution was quickly sought in the governorate. In addition to the deaths, security installations and Christian homes, businesses and churches were targeted. The trial, and its verdict, which have been referred to as highly politicized, have, effectively relegated the reality of Minya’s violence to the back seat.

Justice is a recurring demand made of three successive regimes in Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, and is one that has for the most part gone unanswered. All policemen tried for the killing of protesters in the 2011 uprising have been cleared of their charges. The army doctor charged in the virginity tests case was found not guilty by a military court. Of the four police officers accused of killing thirty-seven detainees at Abu Za’abal prison, only one was sentenced to ten years in prison, while the rest were given suspended sentences of one year each. Countless cases dating as far back as 2011 have seen little to no resolution, or instead, have seen disappointingly lenient verdicts handed down.

The March 24 trial, however, was hailed on several of Egypt’s satellite channels, many of which continue to sound like carbon copies of the nation’s state media. The wife of the slain officer welcomed the verdict, and in the same breath told Egyptian television host, Amr Adib that the man responsible for his death was not among those sentenced. A glance at the ministry of interior’s Facebook page also shows a disturbing alacrity for a severe crackdown on anyone perceived to be standing between Egyptians and their stability and security. An image of three alleged thieves, visibly beaten, is accompanied by a stream of comments welcoming the treatment, their arrest, and some even calling for the death sentence for these men as well.

World governments, international and local human rights organizations, on the other hand, have condemned what has been described a sham trial. The discussion of the trial has, however, overshadowed the events that led to it taking place at all. Harrowing videos show what are believed to be churches in Minya set ablaze: in this governorate alone, sixty-five churches and monasteries, twenty-two buildings, and 100 shops and homes belonging to Christians, were attacked. In Delga, Minya, Islamist extremists took control of the town for over a month, before security forces were able to regain control. While under Islamist extremist control, twenty churches and homes in Delga were torched, while Christian-owned shops were spray-painted with X marks. Meanwhile, Minya, to this day, continues to witness the abduction of Christians for ransom.

Quickly forgotten is that the August 14 dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-in was preceded by sectarian incitement on the Raba’a stage against Morsi’s opponents, most noticeable being the incitement against the Christian population that allegedly stood behind the former president’s ouster. Security forces, however, were nowhere to be found as churches came under attack. Calls for help placed to the police or officials were met with one of two responses: promises to send personnel, which were never fulfilled, or priests were simply told to defend themselves. The Minya verdict has also already been followed by a backlash of its own. Two Christian schools are reported to have been torched.

The Minya trials are only four of many that are currently in progress throughout Egypt. Most notably, Morsi himself is facing several charges, among them the accusation of inciting violence at the presidential palace in December 2012. While Morsi’s direct role in the attacks on his opponents has not been proven, a report by the Egyptian organization, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, states that supporters of the ousted president, together with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, some of whom were armed, violently attacked the anti-Morsi sit-in.

Not only do people seem to have forgotten the reality of what occurred in Minya in August, or at the presidential palace almost a year earlier, but this first verdict leaves unanswered the question of whether or not justice is actually being served. The trial which saw the 529 sentenced to death was carried out with no due process, and the verdict delivered during  the second session of the trial. Defense lawyers say they were barred from entry into the courtroom as the verdict was announced, and denied access to their defendants and evidence presented in the case. While the ruling will most likely be overturned, these mass trials, and the verdicts that are coming out of them, do not serve Egypt’s judiciary, nor do they serve justice. They simply call into question the image of a judicial system whose credibility has suffered as a result

Image: Photo: Bishop-General Macarius, a Coptic Orthodox leader, walks around the burnt and damaged Evangelical Church in Minya governorate, about 245 km (152 miles) south of Cairo, August 26, 2013. (REUTERS/Louafi Larbi)