The case of eight men who could face imminent execution following a military trial shows why Egyptian authorities should place a moratorium on the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said.
The eight civilians, six of whom are in custody, were sentenced to death on May 29, 2016, after a trial on terrorism charges that denied them basic due process rights and relied on confessions that the defendants said were obtained under torture. If the Supreme Military Court for Appeals denies the defendants’ appeal, the six men in custody could be executed as soon as Defense Minister Sedky Sobhi and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratify their death sentences.
“Egyptian authorities have been using military trials to dodge the already threadbare due process protections in regular courts, and we fear these trials may become rubber stamps for the death penalty,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Military courts should never be used against civilians, and they should certainly not be allowed to condemn civilians to death.”
Sobhi should cancel the death sentences and order military prosecutors to drop the case, and if there is evidence against the men or their co-defendants, Egypt’s prosecutor general should charge them in a regular court, Human Rights Watch said.
Since 2013, military courts have sentenced at least 60 defendants to death in at least 10 cases. Six of these sentences have been approved and carried out. While military courts have handed down far fewer death sentences than the hundreds issued by regular courts since 2013, they do not provide even the limited due process protections available in those courts. Egyptian authorities have tried more than 7,400 civilians in military courts since al-Sisi decreed a law in October 2014 that vastly expanded military court jurisdiction.
The eight men were among 28 tried together on terrorism charges. Only one of the 28 was a member of the military. The court sentenced 12 to life in prison, six to 15 years, and acquitted two.
Military prosecutors alleged that the men had supported or belonged to a group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood that obtained explosives and weapons and plotted to carry out surveillance and attacks on government and security officials.
Human Rights Watch reviewed the military prosecution’s 20-page indictment, a 149-page defense memo, and the 37-page military court verdict. Human Rights Watch also interviewed two defense lawyers, one defendant who was sentenced to death but lives outside Egypt, and relatives of five other defendants.
The relatives said that the authorities arrested the five men between May 28 and June 2, 2015, and did not provide information about their whereabouts for weeks. The families inquired in local police stations and sent telegrams to various government offices but received no response. Some learned of their relatives’ whereabouts weeks later, when they received calls from people who saw the men in detention. The authorities did not officially acknowledge that the men were being accused of crimes until July 10, 2015, when some of the men appeared in a video released by the Defense Ministry that accused them of belonging to “the biggest terrorist cell threatening national security.”
Five of the men told their relatives that interrogators had tortured them, including with beatings, electric shocks, and hanging in painful stress positions. Three said they were then forced to read confessions written for them. Two told their relatives that the Defense Ministry’s Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Department had held them in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood, in a facility that Human Rights Watch independently confirmed belonged to military intelligence. None of the men were allowed access to lawyers during their detention, interrogation, or initial questioning by military prosecutors.
The men’s trial, known as Case 174 of 2015, began on September 17, 2015. Military prosecutors charged the defendants with manufacturing explosives, acquiring defense secrets, possessing firearms, and violating article 86 of the penal code – Egypt’s primary anti-terrorism statute. The law provides for life imprisonment or the death penalty for anyone who helps lead a group that uses terrorism to “disrupt the provisions of the constitution or laws, prevent state institutions or public authorities from carrying out their work, assault citizens’ personal freedoms or general rights, or harm national unity or social peace.” Under article 86, anyone who supplies such a group with money, weapons, or explosives can also receive the death penalty.
The indictment Human Rights Watch reviewed relied entirely on the testimony of Major Hani Soltan, an officer with military intelligence Group 77. Soltan testified that on May 24, 2015, during a routine inspection of troops returning from leave, military personnel discovered a concealed camera pen in the possession of a conscript assigned to the Defense Ministry’s general secretariat. After interrogating the man, Soltan testified, he was able to uncover the plot and identify the members of the “terrorist cell.”
Prosecutors did not charge any of the 28 defendants with an act of violence but said the men were preparing for attacks by stockpiling weapons and conducting surveillance on security officials, including Gen. Medhat al-Menshawy, the head of the Interior Ministry’s Central Security Forces, who commanded the brutal 2013 dispersal of a mass sit-in in Cairo that left at least 817 protesters dead in one day.
In March and April 2017, Human Rights Watch sent letters to six Egyptian institutions including the presidency and Defense Ministry, expressing serious concerns about death sentences handed down in military courts and urging al-Sisi and Sobhi not to approve the death sentences in this case or another case in which seven men were sentenced to death by a military court in connection with a deadly explosion at a stadium in Kafr al-Sheikh. Human Rights Watch also said that Egyptian authorities should place a moratorium on the death penalty in all regular and military courts in view of the sharp rise in the number of death sentences, turbulent political upheaval, and failure to pass a comprehensive transitional justice law in Egypt since the military removed the country’s first freely elected president in July 2013.
In 2015, six men were executed following an unfair military trial in which they were accused of participating in attacks on security forces, including a gunfight that killed army officers. In that case, Human Rights Watch determined that three of the men could not have participated in the attacks because authorities had arrested them months earlier and they were in detention at the time. Nevertheless, they were sentenced to death and executed by hanging after Sobhi and al-Sisi ratified their sentences.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a punishment that is not only unique in its cruelty and finality, but also inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error.
Egypt’s military courts violate several key elements of due process, including the defendants’ right to be informed of the charges against them, to access a lawyer, to have a lawyer present during interrogations, and to be brought promptly before a judge. Judges in the military justice system are military officers subject to a chain of command, without the independence to ignore instructions by superiors.
The use of military courts to try civilians violates international law. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1982, has stated that civilians should be tried by military courts only under exceptional circumstances and only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which interprets the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ratified by Egypt in 1984, has stated that civilians should never face military trial and that military courts should not have the power to impose the death penalty. The African Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Fair Trial and Legal Assistance, adopted in 2003, prohibit military trial of civilians under all circumstances.