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With mass sentences, Egyptians seek justice, but come away empty-handed

The same judge who sentenced 529 Egyptians to death in Minya last month sentenced another 683 defendants to death Monday. The verdicts portray a judicial system run amok.

MINYA, Egypt — Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Eid spent months defending men he believed to be innocent. Last month, he was condemned to death alongside them.

The young lawyer was one of 529 defendants sentenced in Minya to hang in what was then the largest mass death sentence in modern history. On Monday, Egypt set a new record when the same judge condemned another 683 defendants to the gallows.

The judge also upheld 37 of the death sentences handed down in March. Mr. Eid and 492 others won a moderate reprieve due to a quirk in the Egyptian legal system requiring the judge to confirm death penalties over two separate sessions, which he failed to do.

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But that is small comfort for the relatives who say they’ve lost all faith in an increasingly erratic justice system. They fear they will be the next target in a growing crackdown by police, many of them seeking to settle old scores, and that the legal system will not help them.

“And now, who do we deliver our voices to? Where do we turn when the judiciary is corrupt?” asks Eid’s father.

The defendants are charged with violent acts in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya on Aug. 14, 2013, after mobs stormed several churches and police stations in response to a police-led massacre in Cairo of more than 600 supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi.

All are accused of belonging to the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood, an accusation that has garnered widespread support for Judge Saeed Youssef’s harsh rulings. Egypt has grown dangerously polarized in the months since Mr Morsi’s overthrow. The Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters have borne the brunt of an aggressive crackdown; at least 16,000 people have been arrested and more than 2,500 people killed. 

“Nooses for the terrorist Brotherhood,” read the laudatory headline on one newspaper, el-Wafd, on Tuesday morning. 

‘We thought the justice system was fair’

Most of the accused are neither members of the Brotherhood. Nor were they present during the attacks, say their relatives and lawyers, who point to myriad trial irregularities. Defense lawyers were unable to present evidence in either case, and neither trial lasted for more than a few hours. Lawyers say it would be impossible to prove the culpability of such a large number of defendants in this time. 

“The court didn’t listen to the defense – our right in presenting our case was not respected,” says Mohamed Abdel Waheb, a member of the legal team, as he left the court on Monday. “The state does not respect the law.”

 Other members of his legal team said that the judge had not even read the case file, which ran to 6,000 pages.

“Even after the verdict, Ahmed was certain that the judge will look at his papers and will acquit him,” says his wife, Maha. “We thought that the justice system was fair… Now we know the truth”.

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She says her husband, a respected lawyer without a political track record, defended or advised dozens of people arrested in the aftermath of the summer violence in Minya, as the police widened their dragnet. 

According to the family, Eid helped secure the release of more than 100 people accused of participation in the violence last August. When he was arrested on Jan. 25, the third anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, he was defending around 60 of the accused. Unlike Ahmed, many of the defendants learned of their impending charges before their arrest. Many are now on the run, sentenced in abstentia.

“The police didn’t like [Ahmed] because he helped release so many people,” adds his father, Eid Ahmed.

A prosecution ‘out of control’

Nathan Brown, an expert on Egypt’s judiciary at George Washington University, says the tendency of Egyptian judges to hand absent defendants the maximum sentence only magnified problems in a trial that uncloaked a public prosecution “out of control.”

In a statement, Amnesty International said the court displayed “complete contempt for the most basic principles of a fair trial and has utterly destroyed its credibility.”

Mr. Youssef’s decision to uphold 37 of the initial death sentences is unlikely to stand up on appeal, and few expect more than a handful of those condemned in March or this week to face the death penalty in practice.

But the two cases have escalated political tensions and may serve to exacerbate a growing militant insurgency that has already killed more than 500 security personnel. 

When Youssef announced on Monday that 492 people had been pardoned, he did not include their names, leaving anxious relatives waiting outside unsure whether loved ones had been spared. As the air filled with the sound of screaming, several women fainted.

Layla Kamal, the mother of a young man condemned to death, says that she argued with a policeman who had tried to take a jacket from her market stall. Her son was later arrested, apparently as revenge. “If I had known that this jacket would have cost my son’s life, I would have given them all the clothes I have,” she says, crying.

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Families and lawyers insist the judge and prosecution showed no regard for hard evidence.

“There are 6,000 papers in the case file – I read them all,” says Eid’s father. “My son’s name is only in there when he is listed as a defendants’ lawyer.”

The muted television in his small living room beamed rolling footage of the scene outside the Minya courtroom that morning. 

“Tell me,” he demanded of the room, “Why is my son in prison?”