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Egypt increases use of capital punishment to crush dissent

Karim Ghassan, CairoWednesday 28 July 2021

Image: Activists in Brussels protest against executions in Egypt, March 2019. Shutterstock / Alexandros Michailidis 

During the 2011 Egyptian uprising against the rule of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed el-Beltagy, an activist who helped organise the protests, recounted an encounter with a then obscure military general named Abdelfatah al-Sisi. The general threatened Beltagy to disband protestors away from Tahrir Square or face the consequences. Beltagy refused.

Now, ten years later, the general is the president of Egypt. Beltagy’s daughter killed during an anti-military sit-in. His only son has been imprisoned and he himself is subject to a Cairo court ruling of capital punishment that cannot be appealed.


The development in Egypt is indeed appalling… it is vital to put strong and long-lasting pressure on all governments that behave likewise

Anne Ramberg
Co-Chair, IBA's Human Rights Institute

Beltagy’s name appeared in a June sentence with 11 others, mostly political dissidents, in the latest in a series of mass trials leading to death sentences that have become all too common in this country. The sentence, which was upheld by the country’s highest court, was part of a mass trial of 739 people who had participated in a sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa Square in July and August 2013 to protest the military armed removal of the country’s only elected president, Mohammed Morsi, who later died in prison in 2019.

Rights groups say this unabated trend of mass executions has pushed Egypt, which briefly had a brush with democracy and rule of law during the Arab Spring, into a record of human rights violations that are turning the country into the world’s third largest executioner after China and Iran.

‘The development in Egypt is indeed appalling,’ says Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and former Secretary-General of the Swedish Bar Association. Ramberg had warned in an interview with Global Insight late last year that Egypt’s use of executions without much attention from the international community was alarming.

Under current local rules, these 12 men will face imminent execution, often carried out by hanging, within 14 days of confirmation of the sentences. Only the Egyptian president can grant a pardon or commute the sentences.

‘These ruthless death sentences, which were handed down in 2018 after a grossly unfair mass trial, are a stain on the reputation of Egypt’s highest appeals court and cast a dark shadow over the country’s entire justice system,’ said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

The sentence, which cannot be reversed by court, came right after a shocking escalation in the use of the death penalty in April when the Sisi government executed 17 people, including an 82-year-old man, during the holy month of Ramadan all in one day without informing their families beforehand, contradicting Egyptian law which bars executions during religious holidays or celebrations. 

Last year, Egypt executed at least 152 people, the highest number of annual executions on record.  So far this year, at least 71 men and women have been executed. The numbers don’t include those who die under torture or due to harsh prison conditions. The country has at least 60,000 political prisoners.

According to several rights advocates, most of those prisoners are harshly treated behind bars where they are routinely denied clean water, food, blankets in winter, outdoor breaks, physical exercise, and provisions such as books and copies of the Quran. Many have been denied access to their lawyers or even family visits for years.

London-based campaigning legal NGO Reprieve, which acts for those facing death sentences, said in a May report that there have been at least 53 mass trials since 2011, in which a total of at least 2,182 people were sentenced to death including children. ‘Egypt continues to sentence children to death in contravention of both domestic and international law,’ wrote Jeed Basyouni, head of Death Penalty for Middle East and North Africa at Reprieve. ‘At least 17 children have received preliminary death sentences since 2011.’

Opposition and politicians have attempted, but so far in vain, to press governments in Europe and the US to make human rights a crucial part of their relations with the Egyptian government.

In May, the Egyptian National Action Group (ENAG), created by opposition figures in exile, sent written submissions to the EU Commission, asking for human rights to be the centerpiece of EU–Egypt July trade talks. The group requested that new trade agreements included what they called a ‘Canada–style Human Rights and Non-Execution Clauses’ to allow the EU to end trade if Egypt fails to meet international human rights obligations.

In June, some 30 rights groups, including International Commission of Jurists, Death Penalty Focus, Capital Punishment Justice Project, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve, wrote a letter urging the international community to intervene with urgent life-saving measures and convince the Sisi government to freeze the penalty. ‘International intervention can be life-saving,’ the letter said. ‘We are urging the international community to make immediate interventions to publicly condemn the death penalty crisis in Egypt.’

Philip Luther of Amnesty International says that instead of continuing to escalate the use of the death penalty by upholding death sentences ‘following convictions in grossly unfair mass trials Egyptian authorities must immediately establish an official moratorium on executions.’

Ramberg says the international community needs to speak out more forcefully against such abuses. ‘In my view, it is vital to put strong and long-lasting pressure on all governments that behave likewise,’ she told Global Insight. ‘Media has a vital role to play as well as civil society and international community including politicians. All good forces need to act as watchdogs for the rule of law in the protection of human rights wherever these democratic values are threatened. It is necessary [to uphold] the criticism and not permit the atrocities to continue and be forgotten.’

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