New York — The criminal court in Minya, Egypt sentenced 529 people to death, possibly the largest mass death sentence in recent years anywhere, in a trial lacking basic due process protections.
The March 22, 2014, trial, in which the vast majority of defendants were tried in absentia, took place in under an hour. The prosecution did not put forward evidence implicating any individual defendant, even though it had compiled significant evidence during its investigations, and the court prevented defense lawyers from presenting their case or calling witnesses, three of the defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch. A second summary session was held two days later solely to announce the verdict.
"It's shocking even amid Egypt's deep political repression that a court has sentenced 529 people to death without giving them any meaningful opportunity to defend themselves," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Minya court failed to carry out its most fundamental duty to assess the individual guilt of each defendant, violating the most basic fair trial right. These death sentences should be immediately quashed."
The North Minya prosecutor collectively charged the defendants for their alleged participation in a mid-August 2013 attack on a police station in Minya, a city in central Egypt.
The specific charges include killing a police officer and attempting to kill two others, damaging public property, seizing weapons, illegal public assembly, and membership in a banned organization, according to the official court judgment obtained by Human Rights Watch.
The incident took place in the immediate aftermath of the government's violent dispersal on August 14, 2013, of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Raba'a Al-Adawiya and Nahda Squares in Cairo and Giza. Police and army forces used excessive lethal force in dispersing the protesters and killed up to 1,000 of them.
Out of the 545 people charged, 291 are at large, 185 had been released pending investigations, 11 are in detention, and 58 are in prison, according to the official judgment. Ahmed Shabib, one of the defense lawyers, told Human Rights Watch, though, that 147 of the defendants had been in detention, though authorities only brought about 70 to court. The court also barred several defense lawyers from attending the trial, according to a joint statement issued by the defense lawyers.
During the March 22, 2014, trial, the judge, Sa'ed Youssef, brought the session to a close before completing customary opening procedures after an argument broke out in the courtroom between the judge and defense lawyers, the statement further noted.
The statement also said that Youssef advised the parties that they had 24 hours to make any written motions, and that he would announce a verdict on March 24. Some defense lawyers filed administrative motions with the court and separately, on March 23, brought an action challenging Youssef's actions in front of the Bani Suef Appeals Court.
The court nevertheless issued its verdict on March 24. In its judgment, the court did not explain the evidentiary basis for its ruling, listing only the names of the defendants and the accusations against them. The court acquitted 16 of the 545 defendants.
A judicial official involved in the case and speaking on the condition of anonymity told the Associated Press on March 24 that "We are in exceptional circumstances.
We don't have time to summon each and every defendant, prove their presence, and confirm who are their lawyers." He further stated that "Now no one would dare to think to attack a police station or a state institution after they saw death penalties falling on their group's heads."
Under Egyptian law, Egypt's Grand Mufti must ratify a death sentence before it can be executed. The state-run Al Ahram newspaper reported that the Minya criminal court will issue its final verdict in the case on April 28 after the grand mufti issues his decision. The defendants may appeal once a final verdict has been issued.
On March 25, the Minya criminal court will hear another case in which the local prosecutor has charged 683 people, among them Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamad Badie and the Freedom and Justice Party chairman, Saad El-Katany, with involvement in an attack on a second police station in Minya. No one was killed in that incident.
The 1,200 defendants charged in these two cases are among the over 16,000 Egyptians across the country whom the government has arrested in recent months, according to figures provided to the Associated Press by senior Interior Ministry officials. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous incidents of arrests solely based on the peaceful exercise of the rights to free expression, association, and assembly.
The nationwide arrests have not been matched by any effort to hold security officials accountable for ordering or carrying out attacks that have killed well over 1,000 people since July 3, 2013, Human Rights Watch said.
Although Interim President Adly Mansour on March 19, 2014, requested the justice ministry open an investigation into the Raba'a dispersal, Egyptian authorities have taken no steps to prosecute those responsible for the use of excessive force.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party, limits the circumstances in which a state can impose the death sentence.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the 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.
"The Minya court's sentencing more than 500 people to death for the killing of a police officer highlights the fact that no Egyptian court has even questioned a single police officer for the killing of well over 1,000 largely peaceful protesters since July 3," Whitson said. "This trial is just one of dozens of mass trials taking place every day across Egypt, riddled with serious due process violations and resulting in outrageous sentences that represent serious miscarriages of justice."