Egypt: Commute Death Sentences for Rab’a Protestors, HRW

 Egypt’s al-Sisi should immediately commute the death sentences for 12 protestors, including prominent Muslim Brotherhood leaders who had been convicted in a grossly unfair mass trial for participation in the 2013 Rab’a sit-in that ended with security forces killing at least 817 protestors, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 14, 2021, the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appellate court, upheld the death sentences for the 12 as well as long prison sentences for hundreds of other Rab’a case defendants. Egypt’s Criminal Procedure Code gives the president 14 days following the court ruling to pardon the defendants or commute the death sentences.

The death sentences were among 75 handed down by a Cairo terrorism court in September 2018 following a mass trial of 739 defendants that began in December 2015. The Cassation Court commuted 31 death sentences to life imprisonment (the others had been sentenced in absentia). Most of the defendants had been arrested in the dispersal of the Rab’a sit-in. Authorities should release anyone prosecuted solely for participating in largely peaceful protests and retry defendants charged with violent offenses before a court meeting international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said. President al-Sisi should direct his government to halt Egypt’s escalating use of the death penalty.

To date there has been no investigation of those responsible for carrying out the mass killings by security forces at Rab’a.

“The Rab’a trial was a mockery of justice, so it is outrageous that the highest court has upheld these 12 death sentences,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “President Sisi should seize this moment to void their execution and put an end to Egypt’s profligate use of the death penalty.”

Those whose death sentences the Cassation Court upheld include senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders Mohamed al-Beltagy, 58, Osama Yassine, 56, Ahmed Arif, 40, Abdelrahman al-Barr, 58, and a prominent Brotherhood supporter and Islamic preacher, Safwat Hegazi, 56. Al-Beltagy was a member of the 2012 parliament, and Yassine was a minister in the government of former President Mohamed Morsy, a senior Brotherhood leader who died in detention in 2019. The 12 men whose death sentences were confirmed could face execution imminently if President al-Sisi does not act.

The charges against the defendants in the mass trial ranged from involvement in violent protests to the murder and attempted murder of several police officers, soldiers, and members of the public during the six-week sit-in in July through August 2013.

The Cassation Court also upheld the prison sentences for hundreds of other Rab’a case defendants, including life sentences for the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, and lawyer Essam Soltan, deputy leader of the moderate al-Wasat Party, and a 10-year prison term for Osama Morsy, the late president’s son.  

The full court decision is yet to be released. The mass trial before the terrorism court was chaotic and marred with abuses at all stages. The trial was postponed several times for years because no courtroom could accommodate all the defendants. Like other mass trials, this one failed to establish individual criminal responsibility and was heavily based on unsubstantiated allegations by National Security Agency officers. Like in dozens of terrorism cases in recent years, the hearings took place inside an Interior Ministry facility. Defendants were often jammed inside a courtroom cell with sound-proof barriers that make it hard for observers to see or hear them and prevented them from properly interacting with judges. Many defendants were held in the notorious Scorpion Prison, where inmates are deprived for months or years at a time from seeing or communicating with their lawyers and family members, severely undermining the right to defense.

A relative of Mohamed al-Beltagy told Human Rights Watch that he has not received a single visit from his family or lawyers since March 2017. On August 13, 2020, Essam el-Erian, another senior Muslim Brotherhood leader in the case, died in Scorpion Prison in suspicious circumstances after purportedly suffering a heart attack. El-Erian, 66, had complained to judges in court sessions in 2017 and 2018 about prison conditions and said the Interior Ministry had prevented him from receiving treatment after he contracted hepatitis C in prison. Security forces forced his family to bury him almost secretly.

At least 22 of those handed down prison terms were children at time of arrest and were prosecuted alongside adults, in violation of international law.

The Egyptian army overthrew and arrested former President Morsy on June 30, 2013, on the heels of mass anti-Brotherhood protests. Morsy supporters then staged large protests throughout Egypt and gathered in two main squares in Cairo, Rab’a and al-Nahda. Human Rights Watch documented six incidents in which security forces unlawfully fired on masses of largely peaceful protestors between July 3 and August 16, 2013, killing at least 1,185 people. Human Rights Watch said these mass killings likely constituted crimes against humanity and required an international investigation.

Several official statements and reports acknowledged the police used excessive force in the dispersal. The prime minister who supervised the dispersal, Hazem al-Beblawy, said in response to the 2014 Human Rights Watch report that “anyone who committed a mistake … should be investigated.” No such investigations have taken place in the eight years since the massacre.

On March 6, 2014, Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) released a report on the Rab’a dispersal saying that some protestors had been armed but that there was a “disproportionate response” and “excessive use of force by security forces” and security forces failed to maintain a safe exit for protestors to leave or to provide medical aid for the wounded.

Earlier, in December 2013, interim President Adly Mansour established a fact-finding committee to collect “information and evidence” on the events that accompanied the June 30 protests. The committee released an executive summary in November 2014 in which it largely blamed protest leaders for the casualties in Rab’a but admitted that security forces failed to target only people who were armed. Immediately following the dispersal, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said that only 14 guns were seized among the protestors. The full report is yet to be made public.

Both the committee and the NCHR demanded that Rab’a victims who “did not participate in violence” be compensated. The NCHR also called for an independent judicial investigation.

In July 2018, al-Sisi approved Law No.161 of 2018 on the “treatment of the armed forces’ senior commanders,” which grants these officers “immunity” from prosecution or questioning for any event between July 3, 2013, and January 2016, unless the Supreme Council of Armed Forces gives permission.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt has become among the top three countries in numbers of executions and death sentences globally, according to Amnesty International.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. In 2017, Human Rights Watch called on President al-Sisi to issue a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in view of the sharp rise in the number of death sentences. According to Amnesty International, Egyptian authorities have executed at least 51 men and women in the first half of 2021. In October 2020, Human Rights Watch documented the execution of 49 men and women by Egyptian authorities in just 10 days.

“Egypt should immediately halt any further executions, particularly of those convicted in grossly unfair trials,” Stork said. “To move forward, Egypt needs to address the crimes committed by security forces, including Rab’a and the mass killings of protestors.”