CAIRO – If you're branded an enemy of the state in Egypt, you may never get the chance to defend yourself in a justice system racking up convictions in lop-sided mass trials.
That's the united view of legal observers and human rights groups, who look with dismay on the growing use of mass sentencing of opponents of the military-backed government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The former army chief is unrepentant, arguing that human rights sometimes must come second to economic and security needs in a country where many thousands face prosecution after years of unrest.
Two mass convictions in the past week — of 183 suspected Muslim radicals sentenced to death and 230 secular anti-government activists sentenced to life in prison — featured an openly pro-government judge defending his blanket approach to convictions, and defense lawyers complaining that individual clients had never received a fair hearing. Critics of the crisis-driven measures accuse the government of undermining faith in the rule of law and radicalizing its citizens against the state, exactly the fate el-Sissi is striving to avoid.
Egypt's government "always repeats how important it is to maintain state institutions, otherwise Egypt could face the chaos raging in Syria or Iraq. But for some time it has been pushing the country in that direction," said Bahy Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Hassan said Egypt's security apparatus "has taken hold with a heavy hand in all affairs of the country, and they are now fully in control of the judiciary."
Both judgments were handed down by the same Cairo judge, Mohammed Nagi Shehata, who has developed a reputation for harsh sentences against perceived government critics. Last year he sentenced three journalists from Al-Jazeera English to jail terms ranging from seven to 10 years, a verdict that exposed Egypt to global complaints of suppressing media freedom. One of the three journalists was deported last week.
El-Sissi, who led the 2013 overthrow of the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, told the nation in a televised address last month that Egypt faced a long war against homegrown extremists, including militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula responsible for a string of ambushes and bomb attacks that killed more than 30 soldiers in a single night on Jan. 29. He said Egypt's emergency situation meant that some violations of human rights were inevitable, if regrettable.
His position enjoys strong popular backing from pro-government media outlets, which demand acts of swift justice, and prosecutors who increasingly frame their cases as part of Egypt's wider "war on terror."
While el-Sissi pointedly refuses to discuss judicial affairs, his government sometimes directly appoints judges to handle specific cases, and some courts have been moved from court buildings to security facilities, Hassan said. Judges who oppose the use of mass sentencing express these views only off the record.
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, said the political environment since Morsi's ouster from power has "made it virtually impossible for judges to rule with the independence they asserted in years past."
"Dozens of judges perceived to oppose the new order have found themselves targeted for investigation or forced to retire, and those hand-picked to handle high-profile political or national security cases have issued blatantly unjust rulings, including mass death sentences," Whitson said. "These conditions ensure that Egypt's judges will feel free to rule only one way."
Strong dissent is voiced by the lawyers union, which has urged its members not to participate in Shehata's mass trials. The union argues that his verdicts appear preordained and will inevitably be reversed on appeal.
On Thursday, 17 human rights groups appealed to Egypt's Supreme Judicial Council to intervene directly to quash Shehata's latest judgment against 230 people found guilty of involvement in December 2011 street clashes in Cairo. Security forces killed about 40 protesters in the confrontations, during which arsonists wrecked part of a library housing rare manuscripts and books.
The human rights groups said in a joint letter that the case illustrated "serious flaws in the Egyptian justice system" because not a single soldier or police officer had been indicted over their role in that violence.
The 183 sentenced to death Monday all were suspected of involvement in a 2013 attack on a police station outside Cairo in which 15 officers, including the local chief, were killed.
Mohamed Lotfy, who directs an advocacy group called the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said judges' use of mass sentencing reflects their biased sense of patriotism and a desire to get anti-government activists punished as quickly, and as harshly, as possible.
"They feel they need to make examples and send a message to anyone challenging the government," Lotfy said.
But he suggested that Shehata and other judges passing judgment without considering individual circumstances must know that higher courts won't allow their verdicts to stand.
He cited as precedent last year's death sentences imposed simultaneously on more than 1,000 people. Not one has been executed. Many have had their death sentences commuted to fixed terms of imprisonment, while appellate courts have ordered others to receive a retrial.
"There is some recklessness in how they deal with these cases," Lotfy said of judges who try hundreds of defendants at once. "They think that in the worst case it will go to appeal anyway, so they give defendants the harshest possible sentence knowing that later a retrial can be ordered."
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