Egypt's judicial system has again come up short, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) warned today after a criminal court handed down a harsh jail sentence for 25 activists, including prominent blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, reportedly for "breaching the protest law, illegal gathering, theft, and attacking officials on duty."
Briefing reporters in Geneva, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville expressed concern about the decision by a Cairo criminal court on Wednesday to sentence the activists in absentia to 15 years' imprisonment and to a fine and a further five years of police surveillance after their release.
"This verdict constitutes the latest example in a chain of legal cases that have failed to meet international fair trial standards," he said, adding that since the promulgation of the protest law in November 2013, dozens of protesters, including prominent activists, have been arrested and harshly sentenced in trials that generally fell short of global fair trial standards.
OHCHR has already raised serious concerns about the law on protests, notably the vague definitions of restrictions and the excessive powers bestowed on commanders on the ground, leading to the possible use of lethal force without sufficient safeguards.
"We have warned that the law could lead to serious breaches of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and needs to urgently be brought in conformity with Egypt's international human rights obligations," Mr. Colville stated.
Two months ago, African and UN human rights experts called on Egyptian authorities to bring the country's legal system into compliance with international and regional standards in the wake of the handing down of a second wave of mass death sentences.
"Following the two mass trials, Egypt's legal system is in critical need of being reformed, in line with international and regional standards," stressed the nine UN experts, together with the Chairperson of the Working Group on Death Penalty and Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings in Africa.
On 28 April 2014, a group of 683 individuals were sentenced to death in Egypt on charges related to the events in Al-Minya in August 2013. The verdicts were pronounced in the aftermath of a first round of mass death penalties imposed on 529 individuals on 24 March 2014.
As in the first case, the second round of death sentences were pronounced, reportedly under similar charges, after proceedings that seriously violated international standards of fair trial and 'the most serious crimes' provisions. Among them, reports indicate lack of clarity on the precise charges against each individual, conduct of the trials in the absence of the defendants and their lawyers, and mass sentencing.