NEW YORK – The latest round of death sentences in Egypt -- 683, all at once, in one short trial session and one, 15-minute sentencing hearing -- is only the tip of the iceberg. The military-backed government’s unchecked repression since it ousted Mohamed Morsy from the presidency last July has created an atmosphere in which no one knows what will happen next and no one is really safe.
This country, three years after its hopeful popular uprising, has thrown at least 16,000 people in jail since July (according to the anonymous estimates of officials.) Human rights groups estimate that the number is closer to 21,000.
This is a country that has repeatedly used live ammunition and other major violence against protesters in the past year. The security forces’ deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on protesters have left well over 1,000 people dead since July. The government’s failure to investigate this violence has fostered a climate of impunity that undermines any meaningful chance for political reform.
This is a country where journalists and workers for nongovernmental groups, both Egyptian and foreign, have been put on trial for doing their jobs. Where disagreement with the government has been effectively silenced.
Monday’s death sentences follow the 529 death sentences proclaimed in March by the same judge, Said Youssef, under similar circumstances. Both trials, for attacks on police stations following the lethal clearing of protest camps in Cairo, were a sham. Each was conducted in the most cursory fashion imaginable, without allowing the defendants to mount a meaningful defense, without considering evidence from the defense, or, in many cases, without the defendants or their lawyers’ presence in the courtroom.
The 683 men sentenced on April 28 were in fact not present for their single hearing or their sentencing, despite being charged with murder, attempted murder, threatening public order, burning a police station and belonging to a banned group -- the Muslim Brotherhood. Defense lawyers boycotted the second trial after the first verdict and death sentences were issued following a similarly brief trial on nearly identical charges. During that first trial, Judge Youssef refused to consider evidence produced by the defense or to hear testimony from defense witnesses, according to media reports.
The two capital cases are not isolated events. Every day people are being sentenced to long prison terms in Egypt after trials that don’t meet even the most rudimentary fair trial standards. Those who appear in court are very often people who have simply been rounded up and detained solely for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or for a peaceful expression of opposition to the interim government.
But it’s not only the thousands of people in jail whose lives have been put on hold under the current government. These sentences strike terror into pretty much everyone. Anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood knows he’s a target. Even under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s longtime authoritarian ruler who was ousted in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme Guide, Mohammed al-Badie, was not sentenced to death. But al-Badie was among the 683 sentenced to die this week.
Members of religious minorities who might have welcomed the end of the Morsy government are finding that they too are under suspicion and under attack. And the reformers who put their lives on the line to oust Hosni Mubarak back in 2011 and also challenged President Morsy have reason to be afraid as well as deeply disappointed in what their sacrifices have produced in Egypt. A court this week banned the secular April 6 Youth Movement, behind many of the 2011 protests, accusing it of espionage and defamation of the state.
In yet another ruling on Monday, Judge Youssef upheld 37 of the 529 death sentences he imposed on March 22, commuting the rest to life in prison. Egypt’s general prosecutor has begun procedures to appeal the entire ruling in that case, standard procedure for death-penalty cases. While this raises some hope that not all of those sentenced to death will actually be executed, the prospect of spending life in prison after deeply flawed proceedings is hardly good news.
Condemning hundreds to execution without considering any evidence or allowing the accused to defend themselves shows a galling disregard for human life. These staggering verdicts show just how broken the Egyptian judicial system is.
Some hope that Egypt’s rulers will ease up on the repression following presidential elections scheduled for May, perhaps going back to something like the decades-long state of emergency under Mubarak. At this point, that might actually look like an improvement, but it would hardly be cause for celebration.
Egypt has been a leader in the region, a center of culture and even tolerance. Its allies, including the United States, have given it a pass in part because they have been occupied with crises in so many other places, from Syria to Ukraine. But they are doing Egypt no favors. Its allies should be speaking up, making it clear that Egypt’s government has gone off course and needs to restore the rule of law and respect human rights. The rest of the world owes it to the people of Egypt to speak up in their defense.
Sarah Leah Whitson is Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.