“Mass death sentences are fast losing Egypt’s judiciary whatever reputation for independence it once had,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Judge Nagy Shehata handed down 188 death sentences on Tuesday, in connection with a deadly attack on Kerdasa’s police station in August 2013. Grand Mufti Shawqy Allam, the country’s top religious authority in legal matters, is set to consider the verdict.
While Allam’s consideration on the death sentences follows procedure, he is not legally required to provide an opinion and any recommendation he makes is not legally binding.
The European Union said the sentencing “raises serious concerns”, and called on the “Egyptian judicial authorities to ensure, in line with international standards, the defendants’ rights to a fair and timely trial based on clear charges and proper and independent investigations, as well as the right of access and contact to lawyers and family members, and to respect due process.” The Wednesday statement said the EU is following “these cases very closely”.
When the trial first began in March, 143 of the defendants were in police custody, with the remaining 45 tried in absentia. Another 13 were arrested in September in connection with the violence in Kerdasa.
The Kerdasa police station attack resulted in the deaths of 11 policemen on 14 August 2013, the same day security forces violently dispersed pro-Mohamed Morsi protest camps, set up in June of the same year to support the under-fire president.
The military ousted Morsi on 3 July 2013, after he refused to take heed of mass protest calling for his resignation.
Kerdasa, a village in the Giza governorate that was absorbed into the urban sprawl of greater Cairo, became a hotspot for violent clashes over the summer of 2013, leading to a heavy-handed security operation in the area to “cleanse” it of “terror”, according to the interior ministry. Police Chief Nabil Farrag was shot dead during the operation and 12 people accused of his murder received final death sentences in August.
This is the third such incident of mass death sentences this year, with two different trials held in the Minya Criminal Court in March and April. The trials resulted in more than 1,000 preliminary death sentences. Following consideration by Allam, 37 sentences were upheld in one case and 183 in another, including Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie.
Whitson condemned the practice of mass sentencing in a Wednesday HRW statement adding: “Instead of weighing the evidence against each person, judges are convicting defendants en masse without regard for fair trial standards.”
Whitson said: “Clearly, serious crimes were committed during the Kerdasa attack and those responsible should be given a fair trial”.
She added that it is unjust to conduct mass trials. “And no trial that’s so blatantly unjust should send someone to the gallows.”
The HRW statement made specific reference to the judge in the case, Shehata, who himself is shrouded in controversy for his role as presiding judge in a number of high profile cases.
In June, Shehata sentenced three Al Jazeera English journalists to seven years in jail, with an extra three for the Egyptian defendant for possession of a bullet casing. The trial received global attention and the world saw the journalists sentenced based on evidence including a pop song, images of one of the defendant’s parents, video footage that was unrelated to Egypt, and inaudible sound recordings.
Shehata is also currently presiding over two more high-profile cases, including the ‘Rabaa Operations Room’ trial, which includes former Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and hunger striking United States citizen Mohamed Soltan. Shehata “ignored” a request for Soltan’s release on medical grounds at the start of November.
He is also presiding over the ‘Cabinet Clashes’ trial, referring to deadly clashes between protesters and police in December 2011. Well known political activist Ahmed Douma and 268 others have been on trial since July 2012 in this case.
In November, Shehata referred two defence lawyers, Ragia Omran and Khaled Ali, to prosecution for disrupting the trial proceedings in separate cases.
Halim Henish, Soltan’s lawyer, said of Shehata recently: “[He] talks like he is an enemy of the revolution and its youth.”