Beirut — New mass death sentences issued by a court in central Egypt on April 28, 2014, after a cursory trial are a blatant and fundamental violation of the right to a fair trial guaranteed by the Egyptian constitution and international law.
Judge Said Youssef recommended the death sentence for 683 people, including Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed al-Badie, in connection with an August 2013 attack on the Adwa police station in the central Egyptian governorate of Minya.
"Egypt is handing out death sentences like candy," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "These staggering verdicts are one more piece of evidence of just how broken the Egyptian judicial system is."
In a separate ruling on April 28, the same judge upheld 37 of the 529 death sentences he issued on March 22 in connection with an August attack on the nearby Matay police station, commuting the rest to life in prison. Hisham Barakat, Egypt's General Prosecutor - an office distinct from the prosecuting judges in Minya - began procedures to appeal the entire ruling in the Matay case, citing his concern for "the proper administration of justice," and noting that the appeal was standard procedure for death-penalty cases.
The 683 men sentenced on April 28 were not present for the trial's single hearing or for the sentencing. They were charged with murder, attempted murder, threatening public order, burning the Adwa police station, and belonging to a banned group - the Muslim Brotherhood. Defense lawyers had boycotted the Adwa trial after the Matay verdict was issued following a similarly brief trial on nearly identical charges, during which the judge reportedly refused to consider evidence produced by the defense or to hear testimony from defense witnesses.
Both incidents took place amid riots following security forces' lethal August 14, 2013, crackdown on Cairo sit-ins protesting the military's July 3 ouster of Mohammed Morsy from the presidency.
Once Egypt's Mufti has reviewed the latest preliminary mass death sentences, the judge will issue a final sentence, which both the defendants and the general prosecutor will almost certainly appeal.
Article 96 of Egypt's constitution holds that all those accused of a crime are "presumed innocent until proven guilty in a fair legal trial in which the right to defend oneself is guaranteed." 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 death sentences come amid a crackdown in which tens of thousands of Egyptians have been jailed since July. The arrest campaign has been so sweeping, and with so little oversight, that its full proportions remain unknown. Security officials speaking anonymously to the media have estimated that they arrested at least 16,000 people between July 2013 and March 2014. Independent Egyptian human rights groups credibly estimate that more than 21,000 people were detained in the same period.
The death sentences drew sharp and swift condemnation from governments and international bodies. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson said that the secretary-general was "alarmed" at the verdicts, adding that such verdicts "are likely to undermine prospects for long-term stability." The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has asked Egypt to suspend the first mass verdict.
"What kind of justice is served in a 15-minute hearing where not a single lawyer is present for the defense," Whitson said. "Condemning hundreds to execution without considering any evidence or allowing the accused any opportunity to defend themselves shows a galling disregard for human life."