Egypt’s judiciary has expanded the use of capital punishment in a historically unprecedented manner following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. The latest example of this has been the 106 death sentences handed down in the ‘Prison Break’ trial on Saturday.
The Law and Research Unit at the American University in Cairo (AUC) organised Wednesday a seminar “On Capital Punishment and the Right to Fair Trial”. The seminar is the latest in a series that aims to discuss various pressing issues regarding Egypt’s judiciary and legal practice.
The seminar featured a talk, with prominent figures including: Former judge and advocate in the Court of Cassation and Supreme Administrative Court Ashraf Tawfik; George Ishaq, member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR); and Reem Saad, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo (AUC). It was moderated by Karim Medhat, member of the Law and Society Research Unit and Researcher on Criminal Justice at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
According to Tawfik, the view held by the majority within domestic jurisprudence is to maintain capital punishment, but to apply it within a very limited scope, and only for “highly dangerous” crimes.
“There are specific safeguards put in place regarding the death penalty,” explained Tawfik. “First, the ruling has to be reached by the consensus of all judges presiding over the case; second, the Grand Mufti is consulted for his view with respect to Islamic Sharia; and third, the Cassation Court considers the case even if the convicted did not appeal the sentence.”
Reem Saad focused on how society perceives and justifies the use of capital punishment.
“Many people in Egyptian society love the death penalty; they see it as a radical solution that eliminates criminal elements and what they represent,” Saad said. “But the question is; do the ideas that those elements represent really disappear after they get executed?”
Saad is also part of a campaign against capital punishment that calls for the suspension of death sentences. However, she argues that Egyptian society as a whole needs to commence a social dialogue regarding capital punishment and the extent of the efficiency of the justice system in its capacity to execute.
“We, as citizens, give authorisation to the state to kill, so we have to think about it because we are responsible too,” argues Saad. “Are we absolutely sure that those sentenced to death deserved it, given allegations of systematic torture in prisons that would surely affect their testimonies?”
Death sentences in 2015
The recorded number of death sentences in Egypt has been steadily rising until the recent upsurge in 2014. Between 1981 and 1990, there were 179 death sentences, only 35 of which were carried out, according to George Ishaq, while from 1991-2000, there were 530 death sentences, among which 213 were carried out.
Since Morsi’s ouster, 1,663 individuals were sentenced to death, among whom 520 had their sentences approved after the referral of their files to the Grand Mufti. Eight received final death sentences and were executed.
The latest death sentences came on Saturday in the ‘Prison Break’ and espionage cases that include the former president, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and several high profile Brotherhood leaders.
Emad Shahin, Professor of Public Policy at AUC, was among those sentenced to death in the espionage case. In a statement released Saturday, he said: “In fact, these sentences are yet another manifestation of the deeply troubling way the Egyptian judiciary has been used as a tool to settle political disagreements by the harshest and most repressive means possible.”
“Sometimes execution is used as a tool to eliminate opposition,” Saad said. “That backfires, because when you execute political opponents, you are doing them a great service.”
“The death penalty has become the favourite tool for the Egyptian authorities to purge the political opposition. Most of those sentenced to death by courts since July 2013 have been Morsi supporters,” according to a report by human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
Several local and international human rights groups have criticised the mass death sentences that have been frequent since the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in July 2013.
Crimes punishable by death under Egyptian law include premeditated murder, terrorism-related offences resulting in death, rape, drug possession and drug trafficking, treason, espionage, and perjury if it results in the execution of an innocent person.
Tawfik pointed out some flaws regarding the implementation of capital punishment in the Egyptian legal system, saying that some legal clauses were phrased vaguely, and the proportionality of crimes to the punishment is at times questionable.
Morsi’s ouster and the ensuing violence that erupted during and following the dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda Square sit-ins in August 2013 led to mass violence across Egypt. What followed was a heavy legal and physical crackdown by the Egyptian state, where thousands of defendants are standing trial on charges of violence and joining an illegal group.