Mass Death Sentences in Egypt Highlight Need for Judicial Reform

An Egyptian judge issued a death sentence for 529 defendants without a proper trial on March 24. The judiciary’s legitimacy was the 530th casualty.

An Egyptian judge issued a death sentence for 529 defendants without a proper trial on March 24. The judiciary’s legitimacy was the 530th casualty.

Four days later, the same judge announced a forthcoming verdict for 683 other defendants after only one court hearing boycotted by defense counsel in protest of the predetermined outcome. Rather than sideline the Muslim Brotherhood, the court ruling exposed the depth to which some parts of the judiciary are politicized.

Defendants were charged with murder of a police officer and attempted murder of two others, stealing government weapons in connection with a mob attack on a police station in Minya province, and joining a group aiming to topple the regime.  These crimes occurred during a riot in August, as authorities launched a deadly crackdown on supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi.

The alleged crimes in Minya warrant legal action, but a mass death sentence misses the point. The court did not permit defendants to present their defense or review the government’s evidence in a hearing that lasted less than an hour. This denial of due process rights does not honor the fallen police officer. Rather, it erodes the citizenry’s faith in the judiciary as an institution. Something must be done to bolster the credibility of Egypt’s criminal justice system.

A judicial system that is unable to fairly adjudicate threatens all Egyptians regardless of their political ideology. With the political scene deeply polarized between supporters of Morsi and the military-backed regime, the judiciary must remain a neutral arbiter. Indeed, it is precisely in such a moment that due process rights are most critical.

This is especially so because the mass death sentence is part of a broader trend across Egypt. Supporters of the deposed president and independent activists are not getting fair trials. Myriad defendants were rounded up in riots that took place soon after security forces violently dispersed Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Nahda Squares in Cairo and Giza, in August 2013. According to Human Rights Watch, security forces’ use of excessive and indiscriminate lethal force killed more than 1000 Egyptian protesters. Since then, over 16,000 people have been detained without trial and thirty-seven pretrial detainees suffocated after officers threw tear gas into a police van.

The case of those thirty-seven proceeded quite differently than the 529. Earlier this month, the officers who had a role in the deaths of the thirty-seven received a meaningful trial; none of them faced the death sentence. A police lieutenant was sentenced to ten years in prison, and the three other officers received only a one-year suspended sentence. In contrast, twenty-one young women in Alexandria, including seven minors, were sentenced in November 2013 to up to eleven years in prison. Their crime was participating in a pro-Morsi demonstration. The stark differences in the judiciary’s handling of cases where defendants are accused of supporting Morsi evince deep politicization within parts of the judiciary.

While some of the most severe sentences are reduced on appeal—demonstrating a less politicized appellate process—that is too little too late. Defendants deserve due process rights at every stage in the judicial process. Judges must be neutral arbiters. If they act as agents of the executive branch—if courts become a forum for politics rather than law—then they lose all credibility.

At a time when most Egyptians are more interested in strengthening their economy than political gamesmanship, such troubling legal developments also contribute towards the deteriorating economic situation. For if businesses believe their disputes will be tried in kangaroo courts where politics trumps legal rights, then they will take their money elsewhere. Thus, current calls for increased foreign investment in Egypt are likely to fall on deaf ears.

When courts lose their independence, the Egyptian people are the biggest losers. Stripping defendants of due process rights based on their pro-Morsi stance is a slippery slope. Anyone who protests against government policies is at risk, Secular youth activists, including Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, have been charged and arrested for participating demonstrations. Surely those who fought to remove the Morsi administration were not envisioning that Egypt would come to this.

If Egyptians are serious about establishing a functional democracy, judicial reform is long overdue. Such efforts should ensure that the executive branch does not interfere in judicial appointments, promotions, and internal investigations. The 2014 constitution offers promising provisions, but more is needed. For instance, mechanisms should be put into place to guarantee that law graduates entering the judiciary are selected based on merit as opposed to family connections or political loyalties. Likewise, judges’ salaries should be sufficient to shield them from other enticements. More resources must be invested into judicial infrastructure, while publicly disclosing such information to allow for citizen oversight.

Above all, fair and transparent processes must be established and equally enforced to hold the judiciary accountable. This might include penalizing, or expelling if necessary, judges who fail to hold up their obligations to remain neutral and objective.

To be sure, the judiciary must lead judicial reforms. But for this to happen, Egyptians should demand their government make judicial reform a priority. Everybody loses when judges fail to serve as a check on the executive branch. The largest mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history is a case in point.

Sahar F. Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and serves as president of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. She is the author of Revolution Without Reform? A Critique of Egypt’s Election Laws.