Mass death sentence questions Egypt's judicial independence, HRW says

Ahram Online , Wednesday 3 Dec 2014

Judge who presided over 'conspicuously unfair' trial of Al Jazeera journalists sentenced 188 people to death for killing police officers

Police officers stand in front of a damaged police station in the village of Kerdasa (Photo: Reuters)

Mass death sentences are costing Egypt’s judiciary “whatever reputation for independence it once had,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in statement on Wednesday.

“Instead of weighing the evidence against each person, judges are convicting defendants en masse without regard for fair trial standards,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East and North Africa director.

The statement comes a day after a criminal court sentenced 188 defendants to death for an attack on a police station that left 11 police personnel and two civilians dead.The defendants were found guilty of killing the officers after storming Kerdasa police station in Giza following the dispersal of pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August 2013, which left hundreds dead and sparked nationwide unrest.

Out of the 188, only 135 were present while the rest were tried in absentia.

This is not the first mass death sentence issued in Egypt over the past year. HRW also referred to the Minya judge who handed down 1,212 death sentences in two separate trials involving attacks on police officers.

The statement also criticised the formation of "special circuits" where particular judges are assigned to handle cases that involve terrorism or organised violence.

The statement mentioned that the judge that handed down the 188 death sentences, as a special circuit judge, was the same that presided over the "conspicuously unfair" trial of Al Jazeera journalists.

Three Al Jazeera journalists, who have been held in Egypt since December, were sentenced to seven years in jail last June.

The three defendants, Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed, were on trial among 17 others on charges of "spreading false news," falsely portraying Egypt as being in a state of "civil war," as well as aiding or joining the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The HRW statement further pointed out that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a party, limits the circumstances in which a state can impose the death sentence.

“Clearly, serious crimes were committed during the Kerdasa attack and those responsible should be given a fair trial,” Whitson said. “But it isn’t right or fair to try everyone in mass proceedings. And no trial that’s so blatantly unjust should send someone to the gallows.”

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement on Tuesday criticising what it described as the lack of accountability for human rights violations committed by security forces as well as the sentencing of 78 minors to two and five years prison sentences for protesting.

The UN issued an outcome report following Egypt's Universal Periodic Review last month at its headquarters in Geneva. The report included 300 recommendations, mainly centred on three controversial issues: a law regulating NGOs, capital punishment and another putting restriction on protesting and freedom of expression.

For its part, Cairo has defended some stricter measures in the name of fighting ongoing Islamist militancy that has killed hundreds of police and army personnel, as well as citizens. At least 500 security personnel have been killed over the past year.

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