By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
An Egyptian Kangaroo court Saturday (March 10) sentenced 10 people to death and five others to life in prison for allegedly forming a “terrorist group” to plot attacks on security forces and other institutions.
The state-run MENA news agency said the defendants are affiliated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. MENA said three of the 15 defendants were sentenced in absentia.
Egypt has cracked down on anti-government elements since the overthrow in July 2013 of Mohammad Mursi by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who later assumed the title of Field Marshall. Mursi was the first democratically elected President of Egypt.
US-client Sisi took over as president a year later and is expected to be re-elected later this month in a vote against only token opposition, according to Reuters news agency.
Along with Israel and Afghanistan, Egypt is one of the three biggest recipients of US funding and weapons.
With Egypt facing an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, Sisi has ordered the military to clear the region of militants ahead of the March 26-28 presidential election, the agency said.
Hundreds of anti-government people, including Muslim Brotherhood supporters and members, have received death sentences since 2013, and Egypt has carried out dozens of executions, according to security sources and rights groups.
According to Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide database, in recent years there has been a sharp increase in Egyptian courts’ use of capital punishment, with the number of death sentences jumping from 109 in 2013 to at least 509. Since the beginning of 2015, there have been reports of at least 354 death sentences.
The Cornell Center believes there are at least 1,700 people under sentence of death, but no official figures are available due to intense state secrecy surrounding capital punishment. Amnesty International indicates that at least 1,413 death sentences were issued between 2007 and 2014.
European Parliament condemns
Last month, the European Parliament condemned Egypt for its use of the death penalty and called for all planned executions to be halted pending a review of the cases.
Egypt is restricting “fundamental democratic rights”, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) said in a statement on February 7, adding Cairo should abolish capital punishment.
“The European Parliament … calls for the end to all acts of violence, incitement and hate speech, reminding the Egyptian government that the universal protection of human rights and long-term prosperity go hand in hand,” it said.
UN human rights experts have also expressed concern that Egyptian officials are using evidence obtained through torture or ill treatment, often during periods of enforced disappearance, to sentence prisoners to death in military courts.
Egyptian judicial system here has become a joke
In January this year CNN quoted an Egyptian attorney as saying that Egypt is using death sentences to settle scores.
Human rights advocates say the alarming numbers recorded by the Egyptian Coordination for Rights & Freedoms and the Initiative for Personal Rights are shocking — but the stories behind them are even more harrowing, the CNN said adding:
What happened to four families from the northern city of Kafr el-Sheikh is a case in point. After more than a year of campaigning to have their loved ones’ death sentences commuted in a case clouded by allegations of flaws in Egypt’s judicial system, they received phone calls on Monday directing them to collect their relatives’ bodies early on January 2.
The families of Lotfy Khalil, Sameh Abdalla, Ahmed Abdelhadi and Ahmed Salama told CNN they received the calls from a police officer at an Alexandria prison.
The four defendants were accused of killing three military cadets in a bomb attack on a bus in Kafr El-Sheikh on April 15, 2015. Their subsequent trial and appeals became known in the media as the Kafr el-Sheikh case. Because the attack happened on a main street, the case came under military jurisdiction due to a recent presidential decree granting Egypt’s military the authority for policing public places and land up to 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) from public roads.
“The way this case has been handled is a classic example of how the judicial system here has become a joke,” said Osama Bayoumi, a lawyer for the families.
In the last eight months, CNN has tracked the cases of 11 civilians who received the death penalty in military courts over the last two years.
In all cases, families claim their imprisoned relatives disappeared for weeks before they were charged by authorities who used confessions allegedly obtained under torture. Such treatment would be a violation of suspects’ due process rights under Egypt’s constitution.
In September this year rights group Human Rights Watch said in a report that Egyptian police and national security officers had carried out widespread and systematic torture of prisoners.
Organizations such as the Egyptian Coordination for Rights & Freedoms and the Initiative for Personal Rights have been seen by international rights groups and the media as some of the most reliable sources for verifying alleged cases on the ground.
Both are Cairo-based groups that train lawyers to document possible rights abuses through contacts with victims and their families in several categories, ranging from claims of enforced disappearances and police torture to records of executions.
In the case of the Kafr el-Sheikh defendants, the families claim the convictions and subsequent appeals in the case relied on confessions that the four men gave under torture during periods of “enforced disappearances” at the hands of Egypt’s National Security Agency.
The Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms reports that more than 13,000 civilians have already gone through military courts since 2013.
Tracking and reporting human rights violations in Egypt has been difficult, the CNN said.
Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America (www.journalofamerica.net). He is the author of several books including Islam & Muslims in the 21st Century published in 2017.