(New York) – A review of the prosecution’s evidence in a mass trial of 51 alleged supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood shows that the government presented no evidence of criminal behavior besides the testimony of one police officer.
On April 11, 2015, an Egyptian judge convicted and sentenced 37 people to life in prison and confirmed the death penalties of 14 others for their alleged roles in organizing opposition to the military’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013. The charges ranged from publishing false news to conspiring to overthrow the interim government installed by the military following the removal of Morsy. But a review of the case file by Human Rights Watch shows that the state presented little evidence that the defendants did anything but spread news about a mass sit-in opposing the coup or organize and publicize peaceful opposition to Morsy’s removal.
Security forces violently dispersed the sit-in at Cairo’s Rab’a al-Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013, killing more than 800 mostly peaceful protesters. The killings were a probable crime against humanity for which no government official or member of the security forces has faced investigation or prosecution.
“The fact that people who covered and publicized the mass killings in 2013 could go to prison for life or be executed while the killers walk free captures the abject politicization of justice in Egypt,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
The April 11, 2015 verdict came after United States President Barack Obama announced, following a call with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on March 31, that he would allow the release to Egypt of F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tanks, and Harpoon missiles that the US had withheld since Morsy’s removal. A spokesperson for the National Security Council said in a statement that rather than wait until the administration could certify to Congress that Egypt had taken steps toward a restoration of full democracy, Secretary of State John Kerry would invoke a waiver citing US national security interests to request military aid without such a certification.
Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of 107 pages of the government’s file in the case of the 51 alleged Brotherhood supporters and verified the contents with a lawyer on the coordinated defense team. The file included evidence logs, prosecutors’ notes, and the full charge sheet and testimony from investigating police officers. Judge Nagi Shehata, who presided over the case in his capacity as a special circuit judge assigned to hear cases of terrorism and national security, did not immediately release the text of his verdict. Human Rights Watch did not monitor the trial.
A review of the file showed that prosecutors presented no evidence other than testimony from a police major in the National Security Sector of the Interior Ministry to support their accusation that the defendants planned to use violence to overthrow the government.
The police major alleged that Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and other top leaders in the organization planned to cause chaos in Egypt by spreading false news of police abuse, confronting police in the streets, staging sit-ins at government buildings, and eventually arresting the coup leaders and forming their own government. Other evidence meant to support the prosecution’s case – including seized papers and text messages – suggested only that the defendants had helped publicize and organize protests against Morsy’s removal.
“Peacefully advocating a political point of view or doing your job as a journalist should never be a crime,” Stork said. “This trial appears to be simply another effort by the Egyptian government to silence its opponents.”
The defendants included 10 journalists and seven people who worked as Brotherhood spokesmen or for Brotherhood-owned news outlets, as well as Mohamed Soltan, a 27-year-old Egyptian-American who volunteered to arrange news coverage of the sit-in, and was sentenced to life in prison. Walid Abd al-Raouf Shalabi, a writer at the Brotherhood’s official Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) newspaper, was sentenced to death.
On April 11, the White House issued a statement saying that the United States condemned the sentence against Soltan and calling for his immediate release.
Badie and other prominent leaders in the Brotherhood also received death sentences. In Egypt, a life sentence is 25 years, and defense lawyers have said they will appeal all the sentences.
Soltan has been on hunger strike for more than 400 days and has suffered potentially permanent damage to his health, his family has said. Unlike the Australian Al Jazeera English journalist Peter Greste, who was convicted by Shehata in an earlier case and deported under a decree issued by al-Sisi permitting the “extradition” of foreign defendants, or Greste’s colleague Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian who remains on trial in Egypt after renouncing his Egyptian citizenship in the hope of taking advantage of the decree, Soltan has not yet given up his Egyptian citizenship. On April 11, however, his family called for the US to demand that al-Sisi release Soltan “the same way he released … Peter Greste.”
The authorities should quash the convictions of the journalists and media workers who were convicted solely for their reporting or for exercising their right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. If there is credible evidence that the other defendants planned or promoted violence, prosecutors should retry them in proceedings that meet international fair trial standards and present such evidence.
The case is the latest of more than a dozen mass trials since 2013 targeting Brotherhood members and others who have opposed the new government of al-Sisi, the former defense minister who orchestrated Morsy’s removal. Shehata, a criminal court judge in Giza governorate, was appointed by the country’s highest appeals court in January 2014 to one of nine special circuits meant to hear terrorism cases and those affecting “national unity and peace.” He has since overseen multiple mass trials. On February 4, 2015, he sentenced 230 protesters and activists to life in prison, while on February 2, he confirmed 183 death sentences for a deadly attack by alleged Brotherhood supporters on a police station.
In June 2014, Egypt’s grand mufti, who is legally required to give his opinion on death sentences in his role as the country’s highest Islamic legal official, rejected 14 death sentences handed down by Shehata against Badie and other Brotherhood members in a separate case. One of the assisting judges on the panel overseeing the case said that the mufti had found that “the investigations and evidence were not enough to carry out the death sentence,” Reuters reported.
The Prosecution’s Case
According to the case file obtained by Human Rights Watch, the prosecution alleged that 14 of the defendants, among them Badie and other prominent Brotherhood officials, had planned to “overturn the constitution” and form a new government by force, prevent state institutions from working, and attack security forces and places of Christian worship, or had provided the Brotherhood with money and weapons to do so.
All of the defendants except Badie and Mahmoud Ghozlan, another top Brotherhood leader, were charged with participating in this “criminal agreement” and preparing a plan to “spread chaos in the country.”
Prosecutors accused 35 defendants – among them Soltan, journalists, and media workers – of publishing “rumors” and “false news” that they allegedly knew would “weaken the prestige of the state,” “spread terror,” “disturb the general security,” and convince the international community that the government could not administer the country.
The judge convicted thirteen defendants in absentia. Two defendants – Ghozlan and Amr Farrag, a journalist – remain at large, while 11 were officially listed by the prosecution as fugitives but are actually being held by the authorities and are defendants in other cases, a defense lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
In his testimony, Maj. Mostafa Khalil, the National Security Sector officer who provided the bulk of the prosecution’s evidence, alleged that after security forces dispersed the sit-in in Cairo on August 14, 2013, Badie ordered Ghozlan to set up “operation rooms” under the supervision of Hossam Abu Bakr, a former Morsy-appointed governor of the Qalyubiya governorate, who was also sentenced to death on April 11, 2015.
Major Khalil said that Abu Bakr and nine others agreed to “execute a plan” that would include publishing falsified accounts of protesters’ deaths and injuries in order to claim that security forces had “violated international human rights standards.” This coverage, he theorized, would allow the Brotherhood to rally supporters and organize armed marches that would distract security forces and provide the Brotherhood with an opportunity to loot weapons from police stations.
Major Khalil alleged that Saad al-Hosseini, a former member of parliament who was among those sentenced to death, oversaw an agreement to hire “criminal elements” to join Brotherhood marches and confront security forces, and that other defendants were responsible for recording the confrontations and sharing the information with the international media.
Among the properties used as “operation rooms,” prosecutors alleged, was the headquarters of the independent news website Rassd. Major Khalil said that when police arrested Soltan on August 26, 2013, he was meeting in an apartment with two Rassd journalists – Abdullah al-Fakharany, the executive director, and Samhi Mustafa, a co-founder – as well as Mohamed al-Adly, a correspondent for the Amgad satellite television channel, and that the four were planning future coverage and how to communicate securely. Farrag, the journalist who remains at large, also worked for Rassd and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia.
The police who arrested Soltan – then recovering from a bullet wound in his arm suffered at the sit-in – had been looking for his father, Salah, a Brotherhood member, Soltan’s family has said. Soltan’s sister told Human Rights Watch that when Soltan asked for a warrant during the arrest, an officer laughed and said he was told to “round up” whomever he found in the house. Soltan’s father was sentenced to death in the same case.
Ten days before Soltan’s arrest, the prosecution said, police had arrested four Brotherhood leaders in another apartment, where they found “stacks of paper” with titles such as “Scenario,” “Characteristics and Types of Weapons,” and “Description of Movements in Some Places.” The authorities said they had found $887 in US dollars and 418,000 Egyptian pounds (US$54,800) in cash, as well as an order from a hawala – an informal money-transfer system – for another 400,000 Egyptian pounds.
Besides Major Khalil’s testimony, the prosecution’s case file includes no evidence that any of the defendants planned or advocated violence. Among the items listed as seized from various alleged “operation rooms” were cameras, laptops, CDs, hard drives, mobile phones, and papers related to legislative projects of the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), such as “Elections Program” and “Egyptian Constitution Project.” Other “evidence” included a document called “I Refuse the Coup Against Legitimacy in Two Languages: Arabic and English.” The prosecution’s file did not describe the documents in more detail.
The defense lawyer, who asked not to be named, told Human Rights Watch that police found no weapons in possession of any of the defendants and that prosecutors presented no corroborating evidence, such as emails or text messages, to support Major Khalil’s testimony.
In a section of the case file labeled “prosecution notes,” the authors cite “many media publications” found by police in a Cairo apartment used by the Brotherhood that included remarks by Badie explaining “how to occupy and control government buildings and confront police forces with the use of violence.”
But much of the prosecution’s evidence describes only alleged plans by Badie and other high-ranking Brotherhood members to bring down the interim government through nonviolent civil disobedience. In another Cairo apartment, prosecutors wrote, police found written papers addressed to Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater and labeled “Scenario” that contained, among other sections, one titled “Nonviolent Weapons of War.” This section suggested plans for a “social and economic boycott of state institutions,” occupying government offices, and publishing “a parallel government.” It suggested allying with other revolutionary groups, such as the April 6 Movement and Ultras soccer fans. It also allegedly contained plans for a 3-day “rally” that would involve occupying public squares, “fatiguing” security forces with clashes, surrounding embassies and government buildings, and conclude by “storming” the constitutional court, “besieging” the Ittihadeya presidential palace, and arresting the interim president and defense minister.
Other purportedly criminal plans discovered by police included a paper that suggested organizing a large march of protesters to Cairo Stadium for a day called “Sports Against the Coup” that would feature the demonstrators from the Rab’a sit-in playing against those from the other main sit-in in the capital, at Nahda Square.
Among those sentenced on April 11, 2015, were several people who served as key liaisons between foreign journalists and the Brotherhood and FJP, including Khaled Hamza, director of Ikhwanweb, the Brotherhood’s main English-language website; Ahmed Aref, a main Brotherhood spokesman; Murad Ali, chief FJP spokesman; and Gehad al-Haddad, the son of Morsy’s foreign policy advisor. Al-Haddad often gave interviews and background briefings to English-language media during the Rab’a sit-in.
In the prosecution’s notes, investigators wrote down paraphrased “confessions” from some of these defendants. Most of these statements consist only of acknowledgments that the individual was a Brotherhood member, participated in the Rab’a sit-in, or helped spread news about protests opposing Morsy’s removal.
The defense lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the confessions were fabricated and that all the defendants had declined to speak with prosecutors.
Al-Haddad’s “confession” states that he served as a spokesman for the Brotherhood, helped arrange official statements, and set up a media center in a hall inside the Rab’a al-Adawiya mosque, where the Brotherhood often held news conferences during the sit-in. The prosecution said that al-Haddad also “confessed” to giving three interviews to foreign media – to a Spanish newspaper, an American television channel, and the New York Times – after the Rab’a dispersal.
Soltan’s “confession” states only that he frequented the Rab’a sit-in and was responsible for dealing with the foreign journalists who covered it.
Earlier Mass Trials
The number of defendants charged in mass trials since 2013 has ranged from two dozen to 494, and the charges have spanned from murder to participation in anti-government protests. Hundreds of defendants have been sentenced to death or life in prison. As of late March 2015, 435 alleged Morsy supporters had received death sentences and appealed their case to the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appeals court, according to a count by the Moheet news website.
In March, Egypt carried out the first execution to stem from Morsy’s overthrow, after an alleged anti-coup protester was convicted of murder in mass trial involving 58 defendants. Six men convicted in a separate, military trial of belonging to a terrorist group and attacking security forces currently face execution.
The April 11 Sentences of Journalists and Media Workers
The 18 journalists and media workers sentenced on April 11, 2015, are:
Sentenced to death:
- Walid Abd al-Raouf Shalabi – Writer for Freedom and Justice Party newspaper
Sentenced to life in prison:
- Hani Salahuddin – broadcaster and former journalist at Al-Youm Al-Sabaa newspaper
- Gamal Nasar – journalist and broadcaster
- Ibrahim al-Taher – journalist
- Abdou Desouki – journalist
- Mohamed al-Adly – Amgad television channel correspondent
- Mosaad al-Barbari –Ahrar 25 television channel director
- Hussein al-Qabbani – Journalists for Reform group coordinator
- Amr Farrag – Rassd news website director
- Samhi Mustafa – Rassd news website executive director
- Abdullah al-Fakharany – Rassd news website founding member
- Mohamed Soltan – Rab’a sit-in media volunteer
- Ahmed Aref – Muslim Brotherhood spokesman
- Murad Ali – Freedom and Justice Party spokesman
- Gehad al-Haddad – Muslim Brotherhood English-language spokesman
- Khaled Hamza – Muslim Brotherhood English website, Ikhwanweb, director
- Ahmed Subei – Muslim Brotherhood Arabic website, Ikhwan Online, employee
- Magdi Hammouda – Muslim Brotherhood Arabic website, Ikhwan Online, employee