Death sentences in Egypt

ISTANBUL (CIHAN)- Death sentences issued for 529 demonstrators who support ousted President Mohammed Morsi are another hurdle in Egypt’s painful path to democracy.
The order was handed down by a court in Minya, a city 250 kilometers south of Cairo, almost halfway between upper and lower Egypt. It has a very heterogeneous demographic composition, divided almost half-and-half between Muslims and Christians.

This is by far the biggest number of death sentences handed down in a single verdict in recent history. One of the convicted was selling candies in his makeshift shop, another selling fruit juice, when the demonstrations were taking place. Another one is a medical doctor who was working in his clinic one is a man who did not have any connection with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, but the reason for his sentence was that he is a member of a banned organization. They have witnesses who can provide testimony to their innocence, but this basic right was denied to them.

After the verdict was made public, a clerk of the Minya court told a foreign journalist that the judge may have handed down such a harsh judgment for the sake of dissuading people from acting in favor of the ousted President Morsi in the future. If this is the real reason, it is unfortunate, because this verdict may, on the contrary, be another step in the public opinion’s turning against the present military rule. President Morsi behaved as if democracy were a system of “winner take all.” He proved to be wrong. Now, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gives the impression that once he is in power, he is allowed to do whatever he believes is the right path. Time will show that he is wrong as well.

Not only the families of the convicted but many others both in Minya and elsewhere will turn against Sisi after such an irresponsible attitude of the judiciary. When the judiciary starts to falter, people lose confidence in the public authority, and this may be the beginning of a new era.

The court case was initiated as a result of an attack in mid-August 2013 on a police station, which in turn was a reaction to the killing of around 1,000 demonstrators in Rabaa el-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares in Cairo on Aug. 14, 2013. The specific charges included killing a police officer and attempting to kill two others, damaging public property and other minor offenses.

A closer look at the court proceedings displays several anomalies: The first hearing at the court was on March 22, 2014. It was quickly adjourned before the defendants were given a chance to defend themselves. On March 24, the mass death sentences were announced. This is far from the modern standards of legal procedure.

Second, the court case is centered on the killing of one police officer. Logically, it is hard to imagine how 529 demonstrators could be implicated in the death of one single policeman.

Third, attacking people and damaging public property, which constitutes one of the motives of this harsh sentence, can hardly be a justification for the death penalty, no matter how serious the damage is.

The importance of abolishing the death penalty in many countries, the establishment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and the right for individuals to appeal to the international courts are better appreciated when we come across such mistakes.

The Turkish Parliament issued a communiqué inviting the Egyptian authorities not to execute the sentences. It used carefully worded language so as not to unnecessarily antagonize the Egyptian authorities. This is a welcome development in the attitude of Turkey, which lost almost all its leverage to play any role in Egypt.

Many mass death penalties have been issued since the beginning of the Egyptian uprising. Few of them were confirmed by the judicial hierarchy and very few of them were actually carried out. One can only hope that, in a mature country like Egypt, such a dangerous verdict, which can be characterized only as a travesty of justice, will be reversed sooner or later. Even if this happens, its negative effects will remain in people’s minds and will be recounted to criticize the wrongdoings of the Sisi regime.

Hard work will definitely be needed to repair the damage caused by this verdict.

YAIAR YAKII (CihanToday’s Zaman)