The Death Sentence: The Consequences of Taking the Wrong Path [Part I]

A new chapter in the discourse of Egypt’s revolution, post-July 3rd, has seen hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood sentenced to death. With Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power, the political situation has spun out of control. What began as mere political differences has transformed into violent confrontations.  Egypt has been pulled into a cycle of terrorism that has left dozens dead and hundreds wounded on all sides. What makes things more complicated is that these terrorist acts are happening against a well understood political backdrop: essentially fanaticism and partisanship on both sides of the Egyptian political conflict. A large segment of citizens who support July 3 and the Egyptian army believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is responsible for the acts of terrorism that have beset Egypt since last July. They see no need for judicial rulings or criminal investigations to prove who was involved in these acts of terrorism and violence. On the other side, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters assert that their opposition to the military coup has always been peaceful and will remain so, and that they have no connection to these acts of violence. Many of those against military authority in Egypt even go so far as to say that these acts of violence were perpetrated by the army and police to sully the reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood and all those who reject the July 3 regime.

In this political and social context, and with a complete crisis of trust in the public institutions, the Minya Criminal Court ruled on March 24 to transfer the files of 528 defendants allegedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood to the Grand Mufti—a prerequisite to issuing a death sentence. In late April, the same court transferred the files of 683 other defendants allegedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood to the Mufti, for the second time, bringing global attention to events in Egypt and the extent of the Egyptian government’s commitment to the rule of law. It left the world wondering whether what is happening in Egypt under the July 3rd regime was truly a democratic transition.

In examining the legal aspects of these verdicts, one finds that according to Egyptian law, death sentences can only be issued by the consensus of all three judges in a given court. The Chief Justice has no priority over the other two; all three are equal. Therefore, there is no point in focusing on any one judge in particular as the issuer of these verdicts. They are the product of a court, not of one person. Moreover, for reasons connected to Islamic law, before issuing a death sentence a court must first transfer a defendant’s file to Egypt’s Grand Mufti (the official religious authority for decisions related to Islamic law) to consult the Mufti’s opinion on the religious legitimacy of a death sentence. While the court is not required to abide by the decision of the Mufti’s office, in practice, many courts do change their decisions and ease their sentences. That is what happened in the case of the 528 Brotherhood defendants, whose files were all transferred to the Mufti. After the Mufti’s office opposed the majority of the executions, the court sentenced a mere thirty-seven of the original 528 to death, commuting the sentences of the other 491 to life imprisonment.

Furthermore, according to Egyptian law, death sentences from any Egyptian court are automatically required by law to undergo the appeals process, since execution is an extreme punishment and cannot be rescinded once implemented. Therefore, Egypt’s public prosecutor appealed the thirty-seven death penalties announced on April 28 as required by law. The appeal for the death sentences will transfer the case to the highest court, the Egyptian Court of Cassation, where evidence shows that the majority tend to be reversed or retried, and the death sentences relaxed. Finally, if a defendant is tried in absentia he has the right under the law to a retrial, which he must attend. This is applicable in the case of the 528 defendants in Minya, where the 381 defendants who were not present (other than the 147 who attended) can be retried if they wish.

One has to wonder about the speed at which hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were condemned to death. Last January, Egypt’s minister of justice, in consultation with the head of the Cairo Appeals Court, formed special circuits (courts) to hear terrorism cases. These courts were established to hear cases of violence and terrorism occurring after June 30, 2013, ensuring the speed and efficiency of the trials. It was the Minya Criminal Court (the circuit for hearing terrorism cases) that released the two famous verdicts (with 528 and 683 defendants, respectively), after two or fewer sessions in both cases. It has been argued that the severity and gravity of such crimes necessitated the formation of a special court for crimes of terrorism, due to their profound effect on public safety and the public’s desire to bring justice to the perpetrators of these terrorist acts. For example, the case against 528 defendants associated with the Muslim Brotherhood accuses them of attacking a police station and looting its weapons; killing a police officer, among others; and setting fire to the police station.

Many argue that these verdicts are evidence of the Egyptian judiciary’s politicization and that it has fallen under the control of the ruling authority whose orders it carries out. If we look closely at the rulings alongside the larger transitional period in Egypt since 2011, we see that the verdicts, as well as the reactions to them, strongly indicate that the Egyptian judiciary is independent from the rest of the state institutions, to the point of near isolation. No authorities whatsoever can interfere with the actions of any court, as evidenced by the great international embarrassment that the Egyptian government has endured at all levels since the verdicts were issued. It begs the question, what would cause the governing regime to pressure any court to release a verdict that is so embarrassing internationally? The death sentences of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters are thus no more than an expression of “the personal convictions” of the three judges who issued them. They found that the crimes committed deserved to be punished by death according to their interpretations of the law.

Nevertheless, in considering the issue as a whole, regardless of any one person’s intentions or what happens behind closed doors, many people contrast these latest verdicts with the judiciary’s dealings with   the cases related to the regime of Hosni Mubarak and his cronies. The majority of those associated with the Mubarak regime have not been found guilty, and many of their trials have been ongoing for two years or more. All the while, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been convicted quickly and sentenced severely. This comparison is the result of the so-called “selective justice,” a great danger that threatens the trust in the judiciary and the faith in its neutrality. 

 Yussef Auf is a nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His work focuses on Egyptian constitutional issues, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.

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Image: Photo: Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie, one of the 683 sentenced to death on April 28, shouts slogans from the defendant's cage during his trial with other leaders of the Brotherhood in a courtroom in Cairo December 11, 2013. Reuters/