Egyptian dictatorship's 529 death sentences

The Western supported dictatorship in Egypt has shown its true colours with the death sentences handed to 529 mostly innocent people. No Egyptian will be surprised that there is no justice in their country

Face of a dictatorship
On 25 March 2014 08:41

Yesterday, as reported everywhere, a judge in Upper Egypt took just two court sessions to sentence to death 529 supporters of Mohamed Morsi for the murder of a single police officer.

Waleed Sultan, whose father was among those sentenced to death, has been quoted by the Guardian as saying: "Nothing can describe this scandal. This is not a judicial sentence, this is thuggery."

In fact, Sultan is not the only one who is unhappy with the judge-only system in Egypt. Crucially, the Egyptian constitution depicts the judge as a strict father, who has legal authority and legal knowledge. The judge conducts the trial, knows right from wrong, and commands respect.

He is both judge and jury. He is both peer-reviewer and scientific committee.   You're not allowed to comment on his verdicts. If you do, you will be punished.  Furthermore, the judge can exclude crucial evidence to the case, leading to a dismissal of the case and a victory of the defendant. 

Incidentally, last Sunday marked the 8th anniversary since the sinking of the al-Salam Boccaccio 98, an Egyptian Ro/Ro passenger ferry operated by El Salam Maritime Transportation. The reports said that more than 1,000 people were killed when the ferry sank 70 km off the Egyptian coast. Most of the passengers were poor Egyptian workers coming back from Saudi Arabia.

A parliamentary investigation into the disaster has blamed the liner's owners, the maritime authorities and the government.  According to the investigation, the ship had not met minimum safety standards, and there was wicked collaboration between the company which owned the Egyptian liner and the maritime authorities.

Also, the recovered data recorder showed that the liner's owner knew there had been a fire on board but gave orders to continue on instead of returning to port as the captain had requested.

Further, earlier in July, 2013, Hesham Janinah, head of Egypt's Central Auditing Organization, was quoted in an interview with Al-Ahram as saying, ''the sinking of the el-Salam 98 was on purpose, rather than out of negligence.'' 

Public opinion was shocked at the huge death toll and there was much more outrage when it emerged that the owner of the ship, a well-connected businessman and a member of Egypt's upper house, was allowed to leave the country before investigations were completed.

In July, 2008 the owner of the ferry along with his son and two others were acquitted of wrongdoing in connection with the incident by an Egyptian court. Public opinion and members of the victims felt the ruling was brought about by corruption.

Consequently, on 11 March 2009, after the initial acquittal was overturned in a hearing, the owner of the ferry was sentenced to only seven years in prison, and two other employees were sentenced to only two years.

Ironically, last month, an Egyptian court announced a dismissal of the case for the two employees sentenced before. ''The verdict can be applied to Mamdoh Ismail, the owner of the ferry, too,'' Hosni el-Naggar, the lawyer of Mamdoh Ismail, was quoted in Al-Masry el-Youm as saying.

Consequently, there was much outrage in the Egyptian street, and families of the victims called for retrials of those responsible for the disaster.

The trials of Mubarak and his regime also arouse suspicion. Importantly, the public sees that such trials are fake and that the rights of the victims of the January 25 Revolution have been deliberately damaged by Egyptian judges (whose appointments to their positions, in the eyes of so many Egyptian people, involve bribery and corruption).

A few weeks ago, Al-Ahram published a report that reads ''After three years of the Camel battle, the perpetrators are still unknown.'' Are they really unknown?

If Egyptians are really unhappy with the judge-only system, and this is true, won't it be more democratic to apply the jury system to Egypt? Furthermore, haven't juries played an essential role around the world, especially in big cases such as mafia trials in Italy?

(Ah, but juries are democratic, aren't they? Dictatorships therefore don't like them.)

In an answer via email to my questions, Prof. Laurence H. Tribe, Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University, said:  ''In our country, and in light of our traditions, juries have proven to be essential to what we deem fair both in criminal trials and in civil trials.''  

Prof. David Rossman of Boston University School of Law, likewise, said: “Selecting juries from the community gives ordinary people a say in how the justice system operates. That makes it more legitimate in the eyes of the people.

In the American jury system, if the jury finds a defendant not guilty, no judge can overturn that decision. So the people are the ultimate check on the exercise of state power. Anyone charged with a crime that has a punishment of more than six months imprisonment is entitled to a jury.  And yes, juries are used in mafia trials as well as every other type of criminal case.”

In addition, Prof. Stanley Z. Fisher of Boston University School of Law stated: “Overall, I believe that the availability of jury trial (although the jury is, in fact, rarely used in the U.S.) is a blessing for upholding the individual's right to a fair trial.

The jury system is more expensive to operate than trial by professional judges, but it is also more democratic: lay persons drawn from the community are less vulnerable to political pressure from above, and more reflective of community sentiment.

That has both advantages and disadvantages, depending on the case. In the U.S., the parties, if agreed, can decide in any case to be tried by the judge, rather than by a jury, which gives some flexibility.''

This all may be great. But the question would be,  how can we guarantee the neutrality when selecting such a jury?

Prof. David Rossman sees that:

“In cases where it is reasonable to fear that the jury may be influenced by fear of the consequences to them if they return an unpopular verdict, the identities of the jurors are kept confidential, so that is one possibility.  

As for choosing the jury, the law in the US requires that the selection process be inclusive (so that all segments of the community are eligible) and random.  That is only possible in a system with a well- developed rule of law and with vigorous defense attorneys who ensure that the selection process works the way it is designed.  

The US, unlike Great Britain, also allows the lawyers the opportunity to question the jurors to discover any hidden bias.  If the questioning process reveals that a juror cannot be fair, either to the state or the defendant, the judge is supposed to remove that juror.  And, courts in this country typically give the lawyers from both sides the right to remove a certain number of jurors without having to give a reason.  All of this contributes to a jury that is, hopefully, the voice of the community.”

In light of this view, juries in sensitive trials in Egypt should represent all factions of the people with no exclusion for any faction. There should be a committee selected and voted up on. Although this process would be expensive, but achieving justice, I think, deserves it.  

Finally, the jury system might be ''about the worst of democracy,'' but it is also about ''the best of democracy,'' as Mr. Jeffery Abramson, Professor of Law at Texas University, states in his book, ''We, the Jury: The Jury system and The Ideal of Democracy: A New Face.''

In this book, Mr. Abramson stresses that democracy in America has developed over the years in tandem with the jury system. We, the Egyptians, need to have a voice in achieving justice.

A Contributing Editor to The Commentator, the writer, currently based in Europe, is an Egyptian poet, actor, and political intellectual

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