Egypt’s outrageous court verdicts
Egypt’s criminal court sitting in Minya, presided over by Judge Said Yusuf, last month sentenced some 529 people to death over the killing of a policeman during the unrest that followed the military coup that toppled the country’s first popularly elected president, Mr Mohamed Morsi. The verdict for another batch of about 600 defendants on similar allegations is expected this month. The sentence attracted outrage and objections from inside Egypt and the world outside. The Egyptian bar and other human rights groups rose up in unison against what was seen as excessive and unjustified ruling. Similar views were expressed by Amnesty International, which described it as unprecedented and draconian.
Yusuf’s ruling, made after only two sittings, should not stand because two-thirds of those sentenced were not in court when the ruling was handed down. Egyptian law stipulates that a death sentence in absentia is subject to appeal to the higher court of the Grand Mufti whose members may be, hopefully, less disposed to putting such a number people to death, particularly when the offence committed was no more than the expression, even if riotous, of opposition to the removal of a legitimate president.
Moreover, Judge Yusuf’s strange ruling cannot stand because the entire process was rushed, thereby making it fraught with irregularities that must be redressed. Egyptian courts are not averse to retrying cases that have been badly handled, but there does appear a determined effort by the military rulers to obtain the maximum penalty against their perceived enemies, particularly members of the Muslim Brotherhood that has now been declared a ‘terrorist’ organisation. Though Egypt is notorious for sentencing huge number of people to death, at no time was there such a number of defendants.
Egyptian judges’ penchant for handing down stiff penalties, obviously at the behest of the military, against pro-Morsi rioters while at the same time ignoring the documented arbitrary killings by Egyptian soldiers and the state police, is well known. In the recent case, this has been put down to a trend that suggested that under Morsi’s brief rule as president, “judicial independence” suffered because he tried to replace top judicial positions to reflect Islamic tenets. This created no love lost between the two groups. Now with Morsi out of power, the judges see anyone arraigned before them more or less as enemy, hence the death sentences and long jail terms for anyone opposed to the military junta.
Yet the judges must realise that Egyptians and the world outside it interpret their action to mean that in a bid to be in the good books of the military, they are ready to misuse the law to perpetuate injustice and arbitrary rule. The trend of jailing so many people, mostly young men and women, whose offences were to seek freedom and a society where rulers are made more answerable to the people, cannot serve the cause of Egyptians who yearn to have a say in how they are governed.
When Field Marshal Abdul Fatah el-Sisi is elected president in July, as is widely expected, Egypt would have embarked on another contentious rule of strongman similar to Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian reign, with all the disadvantages it entails. Going by this trend, there is no way Egyptian judges would exculpate themselves from the odious outcome of another long rule by the army, despite el-Sisi stepping down as defence minister and army chief to take part in the election. Judges should serve as the bulwark against authoritarian rule, not only by upholding the law but also interpreting it in a manner to serve the wishes of the greater number of the people, thereby channelling the society in ways to make progress in achieving popular participation in governance and accountability from those in government. The judges are not doing that now; they have instead opted to pander to the bogus and cynical wishes of anti-democratic forces in Egypt for the parochial end of preserving their positions. This is a disservice to the Egyptian people who sacrificed so much at Cairo’s Tahrir Square to enthrone representative government and the rule of law.