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Egypt judge faces controversy over interview

Judge Nagy Shehata accused Al-Watan newspaper of fabricating an interview where he allegedly expressed controversial views on the 2011 revolution and prominent Egyptian TV hosts

Ahram Online , Monday 14 Dec 2015
Nagy Shehata
Egyptian Judge Nagy Shehata (Photo:Reuters)

A Cairo judge known for returning mass death sentences found himself in the middle of a controversy in the past few days following an interview where he expressed his views about a number of TV hosts as well as Egypt's 25 January Revolution, though he denies the interview ever took place.

In the interview published on Saturday in the Al-Watan newspaper, judge Nagy Shehata allegedly attacked the 2011 uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, claiming that it has "damaged morals" in Egypt.

He also allegedly attacked a number of prominent Egyptian TV hosts, including Mona El-Shazly and Sherif Amer, who he described as "ElBaradei supporters," referring to former Egyptian vice president Mohamed ElBaradei.

On Sunday, the outspoken judge denied that he gave any interviews to Al-Watan newspaper, claiming that the daily independent publication and its journalist fabricated the interview. 

In response, Al-Watan released audio recordings which it says document the interview as well as photos taken at Shehata's home, where the paper says the interview was conducted.

The authenticity of the voice recordings and photos have not been independently verified.

The Al-Watan interview controversy has sparked debate in Egypt over whether the judge should express his political views publicly and whether his views could be affecting his judgement.

In 2011, Egypt's Ministry of Justice put three judges under investigation for giving interviews in the media where they criticised the military judiciary without prior permit from the ministry.

In the same year, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary issued a decision banning judges and prosecutors from issuing statements to the media, citing legal articles that can be interpreting as denying judges the right to express their political views in the media.

The ruling has been criticised by Ahmed Mekki, a member of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary and a former minister of justice, who said that "judges are not required to receive permission before speaking to the media," and that the decision is "considered an assault on their right to express themselves as citizens."

Advocates of this view say that the constitution protects the rights of citizens to freely express their views.

However, a judge can still be dismissed from a case if they make statements that indicate a personal bias in the case.

'Executions judge'

Shehata earned his fame after overseeing a number of high-profile trials in Egypt, most notably the case of three Al-Jazeera journalists who received between seven and 10 years in jail each on charges of "spreading false news" and belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group.

The three Al-Jazeera journalists received a presidential pardon in September 2015. 

Shehata has also been referred to by some as the "executions judge" over his handing down of numerous death sentences in several trials in terrorism-related cases after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

He is also known for issuing harsh sentences in protest-related cases.

In early 2015, he sentenced 230 defendants to life in prison and fined them LE17 million ($2.2 million) for involvement in the December 2011 "cabinet clashes," which was one of a number of clashes at the time between protesters and security forces in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising.

This is not the first time that Shehata has found himself under scrutiny due to his statements in the media.

In 2014, the lawyers of defendants from the so-called "Rabaa control room" case requested Shehata recuse himself over what they claimed was a political bias against the defendants.

The defendants included leading figures in the Muslim Brotherhood – such as the group’s supreme guide Mohamed Badie – who were facing charges including inciting Brotherhood supporters across the country to “defy the state and spread chaos” after the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in during mid-August 2013.

Shehata gave several interviews in which he spoke publicly against the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Images have also been circulated online of screenshots of what appears to be the judge's Facebook page, where posts were made attacking both the Brotherhood and non-Brotherhood activists and figures associated with the 2011 revolution.

Shehata has denied having any accounts on the popular social network site.

In March 2015, after refusing to recuse himself from the Rabaa case, Shehata sentenced 14 defendants to death, including Badie, and gave 37 others life in prison.

In December, the Court of Cassation revoked the death sentences issued against Badie and 11 other leading Brotherhood members. 

It also revoked sentences of life in prison for 25 others in the same case and ordered a retrial for all defendants. Other rulings issued by Shehata were revoked by the Court of Cassation. 

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