In December 2013, Sayed Abdullah lay asleep in his bed. He didn’t know that in the adjacent street, in an apartment carrying the same number as his own, lived a wanted member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Neither did the police van driver who mistakenly pulled up in front of Abdullah’s building. The 62-year-old engineer was dragged out in the middle of the night along with his sons’ laptops, a few allegedly pro-Brotherhood books and two copies of the pro-Brotherhood Al-Shaab newspaper.
After slowly asking if it would make Ayman happy for his client’s story to go public and embarrass the police, the prosecutor promised to level only a few “light charges” against Abdullah so that “no one looks bad.”
In less than two hours, the “light charges” were scribbled down on five sheets of paper preceded by the sentence: “Trusted secret sources have confirmed that…”
The charges included possession of firearms, ammunition, rubber bullets, knives, a silver camera in a black bag, objects with the Muslim Brotherhood four-finger Rabea sign on it, a certificate from the Qatari Armed Forces that says Abdullah is a sergeant there, and what a forensic report later described as “educational material to train Al-Qaeda members in Egypt” on his sons’ confiscated laptops.
Abdullah also allegedly had fliers objecting to the June 30 political roadmap, inciting violence and calling for a boycott of the 2014 constitutional referendum — a constitution that the prosecutor took care to note was drafted by a committee fully representative of Egyptian society. “Good thing they missed the tank under his bed,” Ayman quipped in the first session of Abdullah’s trial, prompting the judge to enunciate his name and raise a pointed finger.
Abdullah also allegedly wanted to instigate fights and stage sit-ins in universities, among laborers and on the streets to disrupt the academic year, production and traffic.
Ayman grew up in Ain Shams, where Brotherhood supporters were just “charitable people who memorized the Quran and never hurt anyone” and he was purely a sympathizer. He never joined the Brotherhood, or its Freedom and Justice Party, he says, because he felt a “plot to make them fail” was imminent.
We met in the offices of the Nasr City firm, where Ayman currently works, to discuss the thankless vocation of defending alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The office is dimly lit, despite a chandelier so large that Ayman has to cock his head to stand underneath it.
He explains that he only accepts cases involving people he knows personally, such as the aforementioned Abdullah — the man who, according to the prosecutor, carried out his crimes with the intention of derailing the road map by attacking government buildings and public property, killing fellow Brotherhood supporters and “injuring as many passers by as possible,” to frame “honorable and innocent policemen” for these crimes and make them appear both ruthless and incapable of maintaining order.
Abdullah has been detained for eight months and has yet to receive a verdict. Ayman says this is the rule and not the exception, pointing at a heap of files and papers on his desk. The litany of charges levied against Abdullah have become somewhat of a template for all Brotherhood cases.
Meanwhile, defendants in criminal cases receive much lighter sentences, Ayman argues, using some of his other case files as examples. He highlights one in which the defendant was caught buying 150 grams of hashish, but was released with a suspended six month sentence because the policeman who arrested him, according to the court, committed two procedural errors.
But the bar for supporting evidence seems to be set particularly low in the prosecution of Brotherhood cases. Ayman says not a single piece of the weaponry supposedly found in Abdullah’s possession was displayed in court, or inquired about by the judge, who contented himself with the prosecution’s report saying that “the evidence had been reviewed and is incriminating.”
“What is going on has nothing to do with what we studied in law school or anything we have seen before,” says Faisal al-Sayed, another lawyer defending alleged Brotherhood members.
Sayed is a grumpy criminal defense attorney, whose permanently upturned lip seems to signal general disgust. His belief in the Brotherhood cause has led him to stop taking regular cases and to represent nearly 1000 student members and supporters of the Brotherhood in a total of 80 criminal cases. Half of them have been found guilty, while the other half has been detained for questioning and are awaiting trial.
Sayed says there is gross bias against Brotherhood-affiliated defendants. He recounts the case of a group of Al-Azhar students, now serving two and a half years in prison for allegedly tearing up the answer sheets of non-Brotherhood students. “They didn’t even bother to evidence complaints from any of the students whose papers were torn,” he says. “If it were true, wouldn’t the aggrieved students at least submit reports or ask to take the test again so they wouldn’t fail?” he asks.
Stories from lawyers of their own harassment are almost as common as their clients’ tales of torture and mistreatment. The police and prosecutor make it difficult for lawyers defending alleged Brotherhood members to do their job, says Ayman. “They (the prosecution) would set the time for questioning at 9 pm, when there was a curfew at 7 pm, for example.”
Police conscripts roll their eyes and glare whenever a lawyer speaks. Some even rudely refuse the customary bribe to take the defendants out of their cells and uncuff them for a moment of contact with their families.
Some lawyers have also faced detention. Sayed spent the entire month of January in a small cell with 70 others for possession of documents related to the Brotherhood. He says, “I wasn’t tortured or anything, but still,” rubbing his neck.
“You know you too could be arrested for having documents related to my case,” he recounts telling the prosecutor investigating him. The prosecutor made no response, much like the judges he stands before in court. They have “one ear full of mud and another of dough … they don’t allow the questioning of witnesses. The lack of evidence doesn’t interest them … The defendant can be brought in with a broken nose or arm and there is nothing,” he adds.
One time, Sayed says, he brought up the fact that one of his clients, Omar al-Shouekh, a 19-year-old Al-Azhar student, said he had been raped by the police and the judge responded that it was none of his business.
Another lawyer, Khaled Hussein, tried to file a complaint against a number of police officers for beating his client in custody and the judge flatly dismissed it because the accusation was too general. “You accuse five police officers of beating up a man and the charge won’t stick because you cannot determine who gave the man the black eye, but accuse 529 Brotherhood members of killing a single police officer and that sticks,” Hussein exclaims.
Often, “especially if you are a not a well-known lawyer,” Hussein says, “the judge will deny you the right to even present your case. You won’t even get to say ‘Your Honor’ and all that.”
“I stopped taking new cases so as not to humiliate myself further,” Ayman says with a defeated smile. Judges, he argues, “can do nothing but convict, or they will be labeled ‘Brotherhood judges’ themselves the next day. And, let us not forget that these men worked and prospered under Mubarak and were chosen to sit where they do,” the lawyer notes.
Most defense lawyers in this line of work have adopted a “Don’t expect results from me, just hard work” attitude. Justice appears so unattainable to them, it is no longer the objective. It has been all but replaced by the desire to clear one’s conscience before God and earn the honor of a trial. “I know the judge has been informed of his decision long before I speak. I take the case to make sure the defendants don’t feel alone when they stand in the cage, and for their families. But, we will not be frustrated,” Sayed says, with a strangely emotionless stubbornness.
Despite Sayed’s pro bono efforts, his client Shouekh’s mother remains inconsolable. Shortly after the last earthquake, she called to ask if the judge who gave her son, a former leader of student protests, five years in prison and a fine of a hundred thousand Egyptian pounds, had felt the earthquake and understood Allah’s warning.
“Does he not understand that if he doesn’t stop this, God will wipe all of us — the unjust for being unjust and the innocent for not doing enough to stop them — off the face of the Earth? Don’t you agree? Am I right? Or do you think I am wrong?” She asks urgently before firing off another round of prayers for retribution.
The names of several of the accused and their lawyers have been changed at their request out of fear of retaliation.