International outcry persists after Minya death sentences

The Monday ruling which sentenced 529 defendants to death in Minya has continued to trigger outspoken reactions from human rights organizations and political groups. 

Egyptian and international organizations have decried the verdict, while a United Nations’ human rights body has suggested the ruling ran against international law.

The 529 defendants were accused of storming and burning Matay police station in Minya Governorate, killing a police officer and attempting to kill two others, as well as stealing weapons and releasing inmates during a wave of violence that followed the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. 

The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a statement expressing concern over the verdict following a trial described as “rife with procedural irregularities in breach of international human rights law.”

The OHCHR statement also objected to convicting “an astounding number of people” in a mass trial over two days which “cannot possibly have met even the most basic requirements for a fair trial.” The UN body also took to task the fact defendants were accused of membership of an unlawful organization when the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed several months after the arrests were made.

The statement also acknowledged complaints made by defense lawyers, who said they had insufficient access to defendants and that the court neglected evidence presented by lawyers. 

For those countries which have not abolished the death penalty, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Egypt, states that the “sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law.”

“The UN Human Rights Committee has interpreted this to mean that the death penalty should only be applied for the crime of murder or intentional killing,” the OHCHR statement said. “Membership of a political group or participation in demonstrations certainly do not meet the threshold of ‘most serious crimes’.”

Another concern the commission expressed was the fact that most defendants were sentenced in absentia. Article 14 of the covenant “requires that every defendant is tried in his or her presence, has the right to adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his or her defense and to communicate with council of his or his choosing,” which according to the statement are safeguards “particularly important in cases where the death penalty is imposed.”

Earlier on Monday, Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson for the US State Department said, “We are deeply concerned — and, I would say, actually pretty shocked — by the sentencing to death of 529 Egyptians related to the death of one policeman.”

“Obviously the defendants can appeal, but it simply does not seem possible that a fair review of evidence and testimony consistent with international standards could be accomplished with over 529 defendants in a two-day trial,” Harf said. “It sort of defies logic.”

A joint statement signed by 15 Egyptian human rights organizations meanwhile expressed grave concern over the ramifications of the verdict. 

“Sentencing this huge number of people to death is a serious and unprecedented shift when it comes to how the Egyptian judiciary deals with such cases, as well as a striking violation of the right to a fair trial and the right to live,” it said.

The signatory organizations include the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR). 

The statement also condemned the court’s issuing a verdict during its second session, after the first session only lasted for 30 minutes, “without hearing testimonies or allowing the accused to defend themselves.”

“Mass trials such as this are a serious breach to the guarantees of the right to a fair trial, and other principles listed in the Egyptian constitution and its amendments,” the statement added.

The organizations are “fearful of expanding the use of the death penalty in light of the recent escalation of repressive measures against political opposition.” 

The Cabinet recently approved two draft laws related to the war on terrorism that, according to the statement, allow for the death penalty for an extended list of crimes and give broader powers to security forces and the prosecution at the stage of investigation and interrogation. 

They consequently demanded guarantees for fair trials for all defendants, including granting them the right to defend themselves, and giving them suitable time to prepare their defense or hire lawyers. 

Eight political groups, including the April 6 Youth Movement, also released a statement calling the verdict “a crime against Egyptians” as well as a “terrifying blow to the principles of justice.”

The groups pointed out the contradictions between Monday’s sentences and the “weak verdict against three officers who killed 37 people inside a police car opposite Abu Zaabal prison in August 2013.”

“None of the officers who killed protesters during and after the January 25 revolution were even convicted,” it added.  

According to the statement, “the idea of independence of the judiciary is now clearly a joke,” adding that the verdict shows that the authorities “have lost their minds.”

“It’s delusional to imagine that such verdicts would stop the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else. What’s certain is that killing, whether by security forces’ bullets or by the law, will only lead to more bloodshed,” it continued.

However, state-affiliated media figures used most Egyptian satellite television channels to celebrate the ruling

TV presenter Ahmed Moussa said on privately owned Sada al-Balad channel that he saluted the “fairness and justice of our judiciary in defiance of those killers, and all those who attack it,” adding, “Egypt’s judiciary is clean and fair.”

Moussa, who said he was “happy” about the verdict, attacked human rights organizations, accusing them of supporting the rights of Brotherhood supporters while neglecting the people. 

Minya Criminal Court is still due to issue a final verdict in the case on April 28, following ratification from Egypt’s grand mufti, a procedure required in all death sentences.

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