While there may be ” a special place for hell” for those who backed Brexit without a plan, regimes that execute people after fundamentally flawed trials get their own summit, wrote Rhys Davies.
Just a fortnight ago, Donald Tusk and the leaders of the EU met with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, at the Arab- EI summit in Sharm el-Sheikh – days after his regime executed nine people.
The summit was co-chaired by Tusk and Sisi. Tusk and other European leaders, including Theresa May, were curiously silent at the summit about the fate of Egypt’s political prisoners.
The execution of the nine-convicted after unfair trials in which human rights campaigners say confessions were elicited by torture – was the third consecutive week of executions. In total 15 people were put to death in February in Egypt.
Human rights matters were apparently on the summit’s agenda, but the only public utterances on Egypt’s use of the death penalty came at a press conference at the end. Sisi defended Egypt’s use of executions, remarking, among other things, that the EU and the Middle East had ” two different cultures.”
At a meeting in parliament last week, hosted by Alistair Carmichael MP, I spoke with a panel of international lawyers and experts on repression in Egypt and the execution of political prisoners.
The UK is, by some measures, the country’s largest foreign investor and speakers at the event were united in urging the UK government to use its influence in Egypt to demand an end to human rights abuses.
There can be no justification, cultural or otherwise, for the execution of prisoners following trials that are manifestly unfair and in which basic standards have not been met.
The absence of moral leadership on the use of the death penalty from the EU and the UK is striking. It fell to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – hardly regarded as the most ardent respecter of the rule of law – to say of the most recent round of executions, ” Of course, we are going to be told that it is a decision of the judiciary. But [in Egypt] justice, elections, all that, are codswallop. There is an authoritarian system, even totalitarian.”
Since Sisi came to power in 2014 and was re-elected last year with a 97% share of the vote – a margin that would make a cold war dictator blush – he has continued to chip away at the democratic structures of Egypt. He has set about drastically curbing the independence of the judiciary.
Alongside a brazen constitutional bid to allow Sisi to potentially extend his term of office until 2034, proposed changes to the constitution are likely to further weaken what is left of Egypt’s impartial judicial system.
Al-Sisi’s proposals will hand him the power to control the appointment of senior prosecutors and the heads of the most important judicial bodies, as well as giving him control of judicial budgets and terms of office.
Human rights groups, as well as the UN human rights office, have repeatedly demanded that Egyptian authorities respect fundamental rights and halt its programme of executions, as well as reviewing recent convictions.
In September last year Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile and now UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called upon Egypt’s court of appeal to overturn a multitude of death sentences, warning that their implementation would represent ” a gross and irreversible miscarriage of justice.”
Last week the renowned Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid Shakwan, I was released after spending five years in prison in Egypt, for covering anti-government protests in 2013.
His parole conditions mean that he is required to spend 12 hours a day at a police station. Time will tell whether Shawkan’s release is a genuine good news story, or just a piece of political theatre. Whatever happens, his treatment over the past few years serves as a timely reminder of the dire human rights situation that continues to unfold in Egypt.
As the UK sails into the uncharted waters of Brexit, there is a moral imperative, perhaps now more so than ever, to champion human rights around the world and to demonstrate that, come what may, the UK stands for justice and the rule of law.