Egypt’s out­ra­geous court ver­dicts

Daily Trust - - OPINION -

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.

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