Draconian Sentences for 51 Including Journalists and Media Workers
(New York) – A review of the prosecution’s evidence in a mass trial of 51 alleged supporters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood shows that the government presented no evidence of criminal behavior besides the testimony of one police officer.
On April 11, 2015, an Egyptian judge convicted and sentenced 37 people to life in prison and confirmed the death penalties of 14 others for their alleged roles in organizing opposition to the military’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013. The charges ranged from publishing false news to conspiring to overthrow the interim government installed by the military following the removal of Morsy. But a review of the case file by Human Rights Watch shows that the state presented little evidence that the defendants did anything but spread news about a mass sit-in opposing the coup or organize and publicize peaceful opposition to Morsy’s removal.
Security forces violently dispersed the sit-in at Cairo’s Rab’a al-Adawiya Square on August 14, 2013, killing more than 800 mostly peaceful protesters. The killings were a probable crime against humanity for which no government official or member of the security forces has faced investigation or prosecution.
“The fact that people who covered and publicized the mass killings in 2013 could go to prison for life or be executed while the killers walk free captures the abject politicization of justice in Egypt,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
The April 11, 2015 verdict came after United States President Barack Obama announced, following a call with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on March 31, that he would allow the release to Egypt of F-16 fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams tanks, and Harpoon missiles that the US had withheld since Morsy’s removal. A spokesperson for the National Security Council said in a statement that rather than wait until the administration could certify to Congress that Egypt had taken steps toward a restoration of full democracy, Secretary of State John Kerry would invoke a waiver citing US national security interests to request military aid without such a certification.
On April 11, the White House issued a statement saying that the US condemned the sentence against Soltan and calling for his immediate release.
Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of 107 pages of the government’s file in the case of the 51 alleged Brotherhood supporters and verified the contents with a lawyer on the coordinated defense team. The file included evidence logs, prosecutors’ notes, and the full charge sheet and testimony from investigating police officers. Judge Nagi Shehata, who presided over the case in his capacity as a special circuit judge assigned to hear cases of terrorism and national security, did not immediately release the text of his verdict. Human Rights Watch did not monitor the trial.
A review of the file showed that prosecutors presented no evidence other than testimony from a police major in the National Security Sector of the Interior Ministry to support their accusation that the defendants planned to use violence to overthrow the government.
The police major alleged that Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and other top leaders in the organization planned to cause chaos in Egypt by spreading false news of police abuse, confronting police in the streets, staging sit-ins at government buildings, and eventually arresting the coup leaders and forming their own government. Other evidence meant to support the prosecution’s case – including seized papers and text messages – suggested only that the defendants had helped publicize and organize protests against Morsy’s removal.
“Peacefully advocating a political point of view or doing your job as a journalist should never be a crime,” Stork said. “This trial appears to be simply another effort by the Egyptian government to silence its opponents.”
The defendants included 10 journalists and seven people who worked as Brotherhood spokesmen or for Brotherhood-owned news outlets, as well as Mohamed Soltan, a 27-year-old Egyptian-American who volunteered to arrange news coverage of the sit-in, and was sentenced to life in prison. Walid Abd al-Raouf Shalabi, a writer at the Brotherhood’s official Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) newspaper, was sentenced to death.
On April 11, the White House issued a statement saying that the United States condemned the sentence against Soltan and calling for his immediate release.
Badie and other prominent leaders in the Brotherhood also received death sentences. In Egypt, a life sentence is 25 years, and defense lawyers have said they will appeal all the sentences.
Soltan has been on hunger strike for more than 400 days and has suffered potentially permanent damage to his health, his family has said. Unlike the Australian Al Jazeera English journalist Peter Greste, who was convicted by Shehata in an earlier case and deported under a decree issued by al-Sisi permitting the “extradition” of foreign defendants, or Greste’s colleague Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-Canadian who remains on trial in Egypt after renouncing his Egyptian citizenship in the hope of taking advantage of the decree, Soltan has not yet given up his Egyptian citizenship. On April 11, however, his family called for the US to demand that al-Sisi release Soltan “the same way he released … Peter Greste.”
The authorities should quash the convictions of the journalists and media workers who were convicted solely for their reporting or for exercising their right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. If there is credible evidence that the other defendants planned or promoted violence, prosecutors should retry them in proceedings that meet international fair trial standards and present such evidence.
The case is the latest of more than a dozen mass trials since 2013 targeting Brotherhood members and others who have opposed the new government of al-Sisi, the former defense minister who orchestrated Morsy’s removal. Shehata, a criminal court judge in Giza governorate, was appointed by the country’s highest appealscourt in January 2014 to one of nine special circuits meant to hear terrorism cases and those affecting “national unity and peace.” He has since overseen multiple mass trials. On February 4, 2015, he sentenced 230 protesters and activists to life in prison, while on February 2, he confirmed 183 death sentences for a deadly attack by alleged Brotherhood supporters on a police station.
In June 2014, Egypt’s grand mufti, who is legally required to give his opinion on death sentences in his role as the country’s highest Islamic legal official, rejected 14 death sentences handed down by Shehata against Badie and other Brotherhood members in a separate case. One of the assisting judges on the panel overseeing the case said that the mufti had found that “the investigations and evidence were not enough to carry out the death sentence,” Reuters reported.
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