When President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi attended the Judges Day celebration at the High Court of Justice this month, he told an audience of judges and prosecution officials: “I was keen, since I took responsibility, on reaffirming the independence of the judiciary.”
Al-Sisi reiterated his position on “not interfering in judiciary verdicts”, echoing previous comments on respecting the courts’ decision over three imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists and the acquittal of former president Hosni Mubarak.
In turn, Head of the Supreme Judiciary Council Judge Mohamed Abdelrahim said the president stood by judges against “attempts of intervention from some countries that wanted to comment on some verdicts they didn’t like and asked not to enforce them”.
On the occasion, human rights lawyer at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) Malek Adly said the head of executive authority’s meeting with the judiciary authority to praise each other is something that “only happens in Egypt”.
Since the July 2013 regime change, successive seemingly politicised verdicts and severe sentences have continuously brought the relationship between the executive and judiciary into the spotlight. In this case more so than the dismissal on all charges of killing protesters during 2011 levelled at Hosni Mubarak and his aides in ‘the trial of the century’.
“The prosecution in all the trials related to killing protesters, not only Mubarak’s, was not given sufficient evidence,” Ahmed Ragheb, lawyer and director of the National Group For Human Rights and Law, observed at the time. For Ragheb, this was due to the Ministry of Interior‘s responsibility to provide the prosecution with evidence of the Ministry’s abuses at its own trial.
“Security forces, who are the main defendants in the cases, provided evidence and reports that helped in weakening the charges,” Ragheb continued.
The vast majority of defendants facing charges of killing protesters were acquitted due to a lack of evidence and an argument of “self-defence”. It is the same argument long used to free police officers from any guilty verdicts in killing protesters and innocents.
In January, Egypt’s courts returned to international headlines when it was reported that Amal Clooney, lawyer for Al Jazeera’s imprisoned Mohamed Fahmy, had been threatened with arrest for a study criticising the independence of the judicial process. Clooney, with the International Bar Association, highlighted that the Egyptian government holds powers to handpick judges, guaranteeing severe sentences in certain politicised cases.
In this regard, one of the most likely candidates is high-profile Judge Mohamed Shehata. Besides overseeing the Al Jazeera journalists’ imprisonment, he also dispensed harsh verdicts to numerous activists and Muslim Brotherhood members. This often included mass death sentences that international rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have decried for lacking due judicial process.
The ECESR’s Malek Adly said that if Al-Sisi has the power to appoint the head of the Court of Cassation and his deputies, heads of appeal courts, the Head and all members of the State Council, Head and members of the Administrative Prosecution, and all general prosecution members, the president is effectively de facto head of the judiciary and “we do not have an independent judiciary”.