A group of eight United Nations human rights independent experts today urged the Egyptian authorities to quash the 529 death sentences announced in Egypt last week and give the defendants new and fair trials, in line with international human rights law.
"The right to life is a fundamental right, not a toy to be played with. If the death penalty is to be used at all in countries which have not abolished it, international law requires the most stringent respect of a number of fundamental standards," the experts said in a news statement.
On 24 March 2014, the 529 defendants were convicted of various charges, including membership in an unlawful organization (the Muslim Brotherhood), incitement to violence, vandalism, unlawful gathering and the killing of one police officer.
All the charges relate to events in August 2013 after the Government of President Mohamed Morsi was ousted. The exact charges against each defendant are unclear as they were not read out in court, and at least 600 more individuals are currently under trial for similar charges.
"We are appalled by the lack of clarity of the charges under which each individual was sentenced to death.
Reports that some of them received capital punishment for charges of unlawful gathering, or any other offence not involving murder, indicate a clear violation of international law," the experts stressed, recalling the "most serious crimes" provision under international law, according to which only crimes of intentional killing may be punishable by death.
"The imposition of the sentence of death on 529 defendants, after a two-day trial that was rife of procedural irregularities, and on unclear or sometimes insignificant charges makes a mockery of justice," added the experts. "There is a clear need for a serious and comprehensive reform in any legal system that allows for such developments to occur."
The independent experts also expressed deep concern about numerous procedural irregularities reported during the recent proceedings, such as limited access to lawyers, trials in absentia, or the mass imposition of the death sentences, all of which are in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party.
"International law also requires that, in cases of capital punishment, trials must meet the highest standards of fairness and due process," they noted.
Warning that the absence of a fair trial is likely to "undermine any prospects for reconciliation within the Egyptian society," the experts reminded the Egyptian authorities "how crucial it is that the future of the Egyptian society be based on dialogue, justice, and respect of human rights."
Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.
The group of eight experts was comprised of: Christof Heyns, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Gabriela Knaul, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Juan Méndez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and Pablo de Greiff, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.
Also a part of the statement were: Mads Andenas, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.