Egypt comes full circle: The end of the Arab Spring

The death sentences for 529 defendants in Minya are a step back for democracy in Egypt.

The 529 defendants were sentenced to death for killing a police officer during protests in Minya in August 2013 [AFP/Getty Images]

The Arab Spring did not start in Egypt, but it is clear that it has ended here. On March 24, a court in Minya handed down 529 death sentences following a trial process that has been widely condemned.

The charges were not read out. There was little or no evidence presented. The trial consisted of two hearings; one of which was the reading out of the sentence. Nearly 400 defendants were tried in absentia. Many of the defendants did not even have lawyers assigned to them. The concerns echoed by the UN are that there are thousands of other defendants detained for more than eight months on similar charges. The absence of due process and lack of respect for an independent judiciary is set to continue with a further 683 defendants standing trial on March 25.

This ruling reveals how Egypt has now come full circle back to the days of Hosni Mubarak – the Arab Spring is now very much over for Egypt.

President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood – whether or not one shares their political ideology – were democratically elected. In fact, Morsi was the first democratically elected head of state in Egypt’s history. If the Freedom and Justice Party had lost the support of the people, they should have been removed from office democratically – not at the barrel of a gun.

Given the political nature of this case, the arrest of journalists from Al Jazeera, the banning of the right to peaceful protest and Field Marshall Abdul Fattah el-Sisi’s visit to Russia to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on his first foreign trip – to gain investment and weapons – it is clear the military government has no belief in democratic principles or human rights. The targeting of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters is reminiscent of the Great Purge of 1934-1939 orchestrated by Joseph Stalin.

Procedural irregularities

It is difficult to know where to start when considering the problems with the trials given that at every turn it was rife with procedural irregularities. The starting point is that the trial is reported to have lasted less than an hour. The fact that 529 defendants were tried, convicted and sentenced to death in an hour for the killing of one police officer defies all logic.

Inside Story – Egypt trial: has justice been done?

According to a Human Rights Watch report, the prosecution did not put forward evidence implicating any individual defendant, and the court prevented defence lawyers from presenting their case or calling witnesses.

It is wholly inconceivable that any of those charged and convicted of these offences could have received a fair trial. Furthermore, to run rough shod over an individual’s rights in the manner that we see here, is indefensible. It is indeed a dark day for a state that is seeking to paint a picture of having respect for the rights of its people.

A spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, stated: “The mass imposition of the death penalty after a trial rife with procedural irregularities is in breach of international human rights law… A mass trial of 529 people conducted over just two days cannot possibly have met even the most basic requirements for a fair trial.”

A US State Department official commented: “While appeals are possible, it simply does not seem possible that a fair review of evidence and testimony consistent with international standards could be accomplished with over 529 defendants after a two-day trial.”

Human Rights Watch has condemned the verdicts, stating: “It’s shocking even amid Egypt’s deep political repression that a court has sentenced 529 people to death without giving them any meaningful opportunity to defend themselves…The Minya court failed to carry out its most fundamental duty to assess the individual guilt of each defendant, violating the most basic fair trial right [under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party].”

Egypt’s military-backed regime has defended the sentences however, insisting that the sentences had been handed down only “after careful study”. Again, this suggestion is astounding given that in the space of 72 hours, 528 defendants had their trials heard, verdicts given and sentence pronounced.

How is it possible that each case was considered individually by the presiding judge, taking into account the relevant factors under Egyptian law, to ascertain whether the offences for which they were convicted were deserving of the death sentence? The simple answer is that it is simply not possible. The purpose of the trials could not have been to seek the truth and ensure that justice was done. The trials were simply a weapon of an increasingly authoritarian state seeking to silence dissent by fear; indeed a dangerous shift in the treatment of such cases by the Egyptian judiciary.

The 1,200 defendants in the two cases are among more than 16,000 Egyptians arrested over the past eight months according to figures recently provided by senior interior ministry officials.

The international press has been littered over recent months that such actions were thought to have been consigned to the past with the ousting of Mubarak. 

International community

It is arguable that the actions are having the opposite effect of that which they seek. It is clear that the continuing actions by the regime are an attempt to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood and silence dissent. However, its actions add further credence to the suggestion that those being targeted, whether actual or perceived members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, are in fact the victims.

The international community holds justice at the heart of accountability and peace. By this recent action, the regime has clearly demonstrated that it neither possesses the will nor the ability to hold such trials under international standards. The question is, therefore, what should be done. It is clear that this is a process that should be the subject of a fully independent, international inquiry.

On March 7, 27 members of the UN Human Rights Council adopted a statement raising concerns about the use of excessive force by the security forces, restrictions on peaceful assembly, expression and association, and called on the authorities to hold those responsible for the abuses to account. Egypt will have to confront the UN Human Rights Council member states in October when it faces the second cycle of its Universal Periodic Review.

It is clear that the international community will now have to seriously reconsider their continued support for the current regime. They will need to decide what is more important – their support for democracy (and with it the election of leaders with whom they may not agree), or their support for an authoritarian military regime that, with each passing day, is destroying the democratic right of the Egyptian people to vote, protest and criticise their rulers.

The beginning of 2014 saw lawyers acting for the ousted Morsi government file a claim with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague with credible allegations of crimes against humanity being committed by the Egyptian security forces during various protests. The flagrant denial of justice, and the lack of respect for the judicial process is perhaps just another example of crimes being committed by a state against its own people.

It is deeply regrettable that the euphoria that surrounded the end of the Mubarak reign was short lived. Egypt today has reverted to an autocracy and any dissent or challenge to the ruling military administration will seemingly be quickly silenced. Democratic rule must return to Egypt. A process of justice, accountability and reconciliation must find a place in Egypt’s next chapter whether it is in Minya, Cairo or ultimately The Hague.

Toby Cadman is an international criminal law specialist. He is a partner at Omnia Strategy LLP, a Barrister member at Nine Bedford Row International Chambers in London and a member of the International Criminal Bureau in The Hague.