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Anti-Islamist fervor prompts harsh Egypt court sentences

Mass death penalty ruling shows judiciary caught up in frenzy

AP

Egypt’s judiciary is rife with judges who are harsh opponents of Islamists, and they are operating amid a media frenzy demanding swift and harsh verdicts against the Muslim Brotherhood.

The result, judicial experts say, is this week’s stunning verdict sentencing hundreds of suspected Islamists to death after a cursory mass trial, a decision likely to be overturned, but clearly intended to send a deterrent message.

“The judge is a citizen that lives in a society and can feel the nation’s pulse and knows that people are looking for quick trials,” said Rifaat el-Sayed, the former head of Cairo’s appeal court, one of the country’s major courts. “If there is a mistake from a judge, there are means to correct it.”

The rulings Monday by a criminal court in the provincial capital of Minya brought heavy international criticism from the U.N., United States and European Union. Amnesty International called the verdicts “grotesque,” and Egyptian rights groups were stunned. The court delivered the sweeping sentences against more than 520 defendants after only one session hearing testimony — without hearing the defense’s case.

But the verdicts were hailed as a triumph for justice by much of Egypt’s media, which have been cheerleaders for the crackdown on the Brotherhood since the military’s July ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

“Let there be 10,000, 20,000 (sentenced to death),” presenter Ahmed Moussa declared on private Sada al-Balad TV. “Those who have killed, we shouldn’t be upset about them. Why are you upset, Mr. rights activist? Where were you when martyrs were killed? Dragged on the floor? . . . What do you expect from the judiciary? To give a salute to terrorism? Or are you supporting terrorism?”

On Tuesday, the same Minya judge opened a second mass trial of 683 suspected Islamists on similar charges — murder and attempted murder in connection to an August attack on a police station. After one day of hearing witnesses — with defense lawyers boycotting the proceedings — the judge declared he would rule in the next hearing on April 28.

The sentences, however, raised a red flag even within the judiciary, where many said they were certain the verdicts will be overturned because of irregularities in the trial. One current judge on a high-level court called it “an individual case” of a judge aiming to show “his political allegiance” and “send a particular message. He knows it will be annulled.” The judge spoke on condition of anonymity because judiciary rules bar him from discussing another court’s case.

“But the manner and the way the session was managed has seriously harmed the reputation of the judiciary,” he said.

Amid the uproar, the Justice Ministry issued a statement underlining that the judiciary is independent. It said the ruling was not a final verdict, saying the court can change it after the country’s top Islamic official, the mufti, issues his opinion on the verdicts, and that the sentences can be appealed before the Court of Cassation, which can order a retrial.

So far, there has not been a clear trend in the few verdicts reached so far in the multiple trials of Morsi supporters. One court sentenced 12 students to 17 years for rioting on a university campus. In another trial of 62 Islamists facing charges of violence during a Cairo protest, the court acquitted all defendants on a lack of evidence.

Egypt’s judiciary, made up of nearly 15,000 judges and prosecutors, has traditionally been one of the country’s strongest institutions. During the 29-year rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the judiciary was stacked with his loyalists — many of whom remain in place and hold the top judicial positions. The government had considerable influence on promotions and advancement in the system, with Mubarak appointing the head of the constitutional court.

Still, the courts did not always follow his lead. During Mubarak’s crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, regular courts often freed defendants or gave them light sentences, so Mubarak turned to military or exceptional security courts to get harsher and longer sentences. A number of reformist judges were sharply critical of voting fraud during 2005 and 2006 elections, starting a movement for greater judicial independence that was one of the various elements that coalesced to trigger the 2011 protests against the strongman.

During the past three years of turmoil since the 2011 ouster of Mubarak, the judiciary has been dragged repeatedly into political battles. It was only after further large protests that Mubarak was put on trial over killings of protesters during the uprising. His trial has dragged on for more than three years, and he is currently facing a retrial after the first verdict, a life sentence was overturned on appeal.

The judiciary clashed fiercely with Morsi, who in 2012 became Egypt’s first freely elected president and whose presidency saw political domination by the Brotherhood. Morsi and the Brotherhood frequently accused the judiciary of being Mubarak holdovers opposed to their rule, while judges accused him of trying to dominate the judiciary. He locked horns with the judges by naming a prosecutor general loyal to him, and his backers sought to push opponents in the judiciary into retirement. Morsi issued a decree declaring his decisions immune from judiciary review, prompting thousands of judges to go on strike and widening public protests against his rule.

Now after Morsi’s ouster, any expression of criticism among judges of the mainstream support for the military is at personal peril.

Some 75 judges who spoke out against “the removal of a legitimately elected president” and “the attack on constitutional legitimacy” were suspended from the Judges Club, an influential association of judges, and are under investigation for disciplinary action for engaging in political activity. Other judges who publicly backed the protests calling for Morsi’s ouster that prompted the military to remove him saw no such reprisals.