(New York) – Six men face execution in Egypt after being convicted by a military court, despite evidence that some were in detention at the time of the crimes. Egyptian authorities should stay the executions and send the men’s case for retrial before a civilian court, Human Rights Watch said.
The six men are part of a group of nine convicted in a single trial of participating in attacks on security forces and killing two armed forces officers in a shootout in 2014. Two of the nine men were sentenced to life in prison. Another man was tried and convicted in his absence and sentenced to death. Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi confirmed all seven death sentences on March 24, 2015, following the rejection of a legally required appeal from prosecutors, putting the six men in custody at risk of execution at any time.
“Egypt’s courts have routinely abandoned due process, but if these executions go ahead it will represent an egregious new low,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Civilians should never face trial before military courts or face execution as a result.”
Military prosecutors accused the nine men of belonging to the Egyptian insurgent group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, and of participating in attacks on security forces, including a gunfight on March 19, 2014, in Arab Sharkas, a village north of Cairo, which killed an armed forces brigadier general and colonel. The Arab Sharkas gun battle occurred when police, military, and special forces raided a timber workshop in the village, in the Qalyubiya governorate, which they believed the jihadist group used, the Associated Press reported at the time.
After the raid, the Interior Ministry claimed that its forces had killed six militants and arrested eight others – the men who later stood trial.
Three of the men now facing execution could not have participated in any of the attacks for which they were sentenced to death because authorities arrested them months earlier and were still holding them in detention at the time, said their relatives and Ahmed Helmy, their lawyer.
Authorities arrested Mohamed Bakry, Hani Amer, and Mohamed Afifi in late 2013, Helmy said, and their families hired him in January 2014 to find out where they were detained. He said authorities arrested Afifi and Bakry, both Cairo residents, in November 2013. They also detained but later released Bakry’s wife and children. Men in civilian clothes arrested Amer, an Ismailia resident, in December 2013 while he was at a government office seeking a permit for his information technology company, Helmy said.
Helmy told Human Rights Watch that he believed the authorities sent all three men after their arrests to Azouli Prison, an unregistered detention facility inside Al Galaa army base in Ismailia, a city on the Suez Canal.
Amer’s brother told Human Rights Watch in November 2014 that Amer said he had been held in Azouli, and the Guardian newspaper reported in March 2015 that other Azouli prisoners in a separate case had identified Amer as having been held there.
Human Rights Watch obtained copies of telegrams that Amer and Bakry’s families sent to local prosecutors in December 2013 requesting information about the two men. In February 2014, Helmy sent a complaint to local prosecutors following up on his request for information about Amer. Prosecutors never responded. Amer’s brother said that Amer told him he had been transferred from Azouli to Tora Prison in Cairo on March 20, 2014, a day after the fatal clash at Arab Sharkas.
Despite urging from many of their relatives, the men declined to pursue their own appeal after a military court sitting at the Hikestep military base outside Cairo convicted them in August 2014. They told Helmy and their families that they do not recognize the legitimacy of the military court and believe that their case has been politicized and that their sentences were pre-ordained by the authorities.
In February 2014, interim President Adly Mansour issued a law establishing a military appeals court for serious crimes and requiring that death sentences be approved by Egypt’s highest Muslim religious figure, the grand mufti, as occurs in civilian cases.
According to prosecutors, some of the eight defendants initially confessed to membership in Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the crimes for which they are accused. But all have since renounced their confessions, saying they were obtained under torture, Helmy said.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in November 2014 and now refers to itself as the Sinai Province.
The father of Khaled Farag, another of the six facing execution, told Human Rights Watch that his son told him he was arrested at another location on the day of the March 19 raid, was blindfolded and tortured by his interrogators after his arrest, and suffered a broken left thigh and a serious fracture of his left knee. His surgery required plates and screws in his thigh and wiring in his knee, wrote Hossam Bahgat, the former director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who attended one of the trial sessions, on the Mada Masr news website. Farag attended the trial in a wheelchair.
Helmy was not allowed to visit his clients in private, he said, and the only witness against them is an officer from the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency.
All eight men are currently held in the Scorpion section of Tora Prison, the highest security facility in Egypt. Some of the men’s families have not been allowed to visit their relatives for months. Farag’s father told Human Rights Watch that he hasn’t seen his son in three months, and Amer’s brother said he has not been allowed to see Amer since February, which was only the second time he had visited his brother. He also said Amer’s family has not been allowed to deliver food or medicine.
The men face additional charges in an ordinary civilian court, where they are among 200 people accused of belonging to Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, but Helmy said the civilian court proceedings will not prevent the death sentences from being carried out. The execution process is secretive. Families are supposed to receive a warning a day in advance, but that is not always respected in practice.
If the six are executed, it would be the second time Egyptian authorities have carried out a death sentence for alleged political violence since the military removed President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013. Hundreds of people, the majority Morsy supporters or members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood, have been sentenced to death since then.
Egypt’s military courts, whose judges are serving military officers, are neither independent nor impartial, but in October 2014 President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi increased their powers to try civilians by expanding their jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on state or public property. Since then, nearly 2,000 civilians have been referred to military courts.
The use of military courts to try civilians violates the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt’s parliament ratified in 1984. The African Human Rights Commission Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance explicitly forbid military trials of civilians in all circumstances.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. In 2013, following similar past resolutions, the United Nations General Assembly called on countries to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, progressively restrict the practice, and reduce the offenses for which it might be imposed, with the view toward its eventual abolition.
“It is outrageous that these six men face execution in Egypt after such a flawed judicial process,” Whitson said.