(New York) – An Egyptian criminal court handed down provisional death sentences against 188 defendants on December 2, 2014, the third such mass sentencing this year.
Judge Nagi Shehata imposed the sentences after he convicted all the defendants of participating in an August 2013 attack on a police station in the governorate of Giza, which came to be known as the “Kerdasa massacre” after the neighborhood where it took place. Eleven police officers and two civilians died in the attack, which occurred shortly after the military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
“Mass death sentences are fast losing Egypt’s judiciary whatever reputation for independence it once had,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Instead of weighing the evidence against each person, judges are convicting defendants en masse without regard for fair trial standards.”
The court imposed provisional death sentences, meaning that they will be sent to the Grand Mufti, Egypt’s highest religious authority, for his legally required evaluation and advice on whether they should stand. Of the 188 defendants, 135 were present in custody; 53 others were tried and sentenced in absentia. Shehata set a January 24 court date to finalize the sentences.
Prior to this case, a judge in the governorate of Minya imposed 1,212 death sentences in March and April after two trials arising from other attacks on police stations in 2013 that left at least two police officers dead. After receiving the Grand Mufti’s opinion, the judge approved 220 of those death sentences. The judge sentenced 495 other defendants to life in prison.
These mass trials have principally targeted members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement, which the government designated a terrorist group in 2013 after Morsy’s overthrow. Among those sentenced to death in Minya was the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badie.
The Kerdasa trial also highlights the role of what some legal analysts have labeled Egypt’s new “special circuits”: judges assigned to handle cases that involve terrorism or organized violence or which are deemed sensitive to national security. In December 2013, the Cairo Court of Appeals appointed six judges from the Cairo and Giza governorates to special circuits. These judges convene for two weeks each month in Cairo’s Police Academy to hear such cases, according to the state-run al-Ahram newspaper.
Shehata presided over the Kerdasa trial in his capacity as a special circuit judge, hearing the case in the Police Academy. He has presided over a number of other high-profile proceedings. In June, he sentenced three Al Jazeera English journalists to between 7 and 10 years in prison after a trial that was conspicuously unfair. He is also presiding over the trial of 270 protesters accused of attacking the cabinet offices during a protest in December 2011, among them prominent activist and hunger striker Ahmed Douma, whom Shehata has not allowed to be moved to a hospital. Shehata has also ordered prosecutors to investigate at least five defense lawyers in that case, including prominent human rights defender Ragia Omran and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali. On November 22, Egypt’s Lawyers Syndicate issued a statement criticizing Shehata for “terrorizing” the defense team and said it supported their decision to withdraw from the case in protest.
A police officer who witnessed the Kerdasa attack told the Associated Press that a mob stormed the police station with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and Molotov cocktails. Graphic video aired by Egyptian media showed slain police officers slumped against one another in a soot-stained room. Local residents, however, told a reporter from El Badil newspaper that police had killed 12 young protesters from Kerdasa and nearby villages between the July 2013 coup and the violent dispersal of pro-Morsy sit-ins that August. When residents protested outside the police station demanding that security forces withdraw, they told the reporter, police opened fire on the crowd. The residents claimed that an armed group from outside the village launched the deadly attack but admitted some in Kerdasa provided assistance.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a party, limits the circumstances in which a state can impose the death sentence. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that interprets the ICCPR, has said that “in cases of trials leading to the imposition of the death penalty, scrupulous respect of the guarantees of fair trial is particularly important.” Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel and inhumane punishment.
“Clearly, serious crimes were committed during the Kerdasa attack and those responsible should be given a fair trial,” Whitson said. “But it isn’t right or fair to try everyone in mass proceedings. And no trial that’s so blatantly unjust should send someone to the gallows.”