CAIRO – Egypt's judiciary is rife with judges who are sharp opponents of Islamists, and they are operating amid a media frenzy demanding swift and harsh verdicts against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The result, judicial experts say, is this week's stunning verdict sentencing hundreds of suspected Islamists to death after a cursory mass trial, a decision likely to be overturned but clearly intended to send a deterrent message.
"The judge is a citizen that lives in a society and can feel the nation's pulse and knows that people are looking for quick trials," Rifaat el-Sayed, the former head of Cairo's appeal court, one of the country's major courts, told The Associated Press. "If there is a mistake from a judge, there are means to correct it."
The rulings Monday by a criminal court in the provincial capital of Minya brought heavy international criticism from the U.N., United States and European Union. Amnesty International called the verdicts "grotesque," and Egyptian rights groups were stunned. The court delivered the sweeping sentences against more than 520 defendants after only one session hearing testimony — without hearing the defense's case.
But the verdicts were hailed as a triumph for justice by much of Egypt's media, which have been cheerleaders for the crackdown on the Brotherhood since the military's July ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
"Let them be 10,000, 20,000 (sentenced to death)," presenter Ahmed Moussa declared on private Sada al-Balad TV. "Those who have killed, we shouldn't be upset about them. Why are you upset, Mr. rights activist? Where were you when martyrs were killed? Dragged on the floor? ... What do you expect from the judiciary? To give salute to terrorism? Or are you supporting terrorism?"
On Tuesday, the same Minya judge opened a second mass trial of 683 suspected Islamists on similar charges — murder and attempted murder in connection to an August attack on a police station. After one day of hearing witnesses — with defense lawyers boycotting the proceedings — the judge declared he would rule in the next hearing, on April 28.
The sentences, however, raised a red flag even within the judiciary, where many said they were certain the verdicts will be overturned because of irregularities in the trial. One current judge on a high-level court called it "an individual case" of a judge aiming to show "his political allegiance" and "send a particular message. He knows it will be annulled." The judge spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because judiciary rules bar him from discussing another court's case.
"But the manner and the way the session was managed has seriously harmed the reputation of the judiciary," he said.
Amid the uproar, the Justice Ministry issued a statement underlining that the judiciary is independent. It said the ruling was not a final verdict, saying the court can change it after the country's top Islamic official, the mufti, issues his opinion on the death sentences, and that the sentences can be appealed before the Court of Cassation, which can order a retrial.
Egypt's judiciary, made up of nearly 15,000 judges and prosecutors, has traditionally been one of the country's strongest institutions. During the 29-year rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the judiciary was stacked with his loyalists — many of whom remain in place and hold the top judicial positions. The government had considerable influence on promotions and advancement in the system, with Mubarak appointing the head of the constitutional court.
Still, the courts did not always follow his lead. During Mubarak's crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood, regular courts often freed defendants or gave them light sentences, so Mubarak turned to military or exceptional security courts to get harsher and longer sentences. A number of reformist judges were sharply critical of voting fraud during 2005 and 2006 elections, starting a movement for greater judicial independence that was one of the various elements that coalesced to trigger the 2011 protests against Mubarak.
During the past three years of turmoil since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the judiciary has been dragged repeatedly into political battles. It was only after further large protests that Hosni Mubarak was put on trial over killings of protesters during the uprising. His trial has dragged on for more than three years, and he is currently facing a retrial after the first verdict, a life sentence was overturned in appeal.
The judiciary clashed fiercely with Morsi, who in 2012 became Egypt's first freely elected president and whose presidency saw political domination by the Brotherhood. Morsi and the Brotherhood frequently accused the judiciary of being Mubarak holdovers opposed to their rule, while judges accused him of trying to dominate the judiciary. He locked horns with the judges by naming a prosecutor general loyal to him, and his backers sought to push opponents in the judiciary into retirement. Morsi issued a decree declaring his decisions immune from judiciary review, prompting thousands of judges to go on strike and widening public protests against his rule.
Now after Morsi's ouster, any expression of criticism among judges of the mainstream support for the military is at personal peril.
Some 75 judges who spoke out against "the removal of a legitimately elected president" and "the attack on constitutional legitimacy" were suspended from the Judges Club, an influential association of judges, and are under investigation for disciplinary action for engaging in political activity. Other judges who publicly backed the protests calling for Morsi's ouster that prompted the military to remove him saw no such reprisals. Some of the reform judges who were part of the judicial independence movement under Mubarak are now depicted by rivals as Islamists — which some were, but not all.
El-Sayed, the former judge, depicted the disciplinary measures as unifying the judiciary and removing political influence.
"Since Jan. 25, 2011, the judicial family has been united, become one fabric and partisan and divisions are finished," he said. "We managed to protect the independence of the judiciary and anyone who violated those lofty principles has been sent to disciplinary committees."
The current judge said there is little direct interference from the government in specific decisions of judges — but that the hand of the executive still has control over much of the profession.
The new constitution passed after Morsi's ouster more deeply enshrines professional independence for the judicial system, giving judges greater say over their own affairs — in part a reaction to Morsi's rule. Judges now choose the prosecutor general and members of the Supreme Constitutional Court and the judiciary must approve all legislation over the profession before parliament can pass it. Still, the justice minister appoints administrative heads of primary courts, who in turn can determine which judge will hear which cases. That, he says, opens the door to bias by picking judges known for certain beliefs. With new courts assigned terrorism related cases, many fear the speed and verdicts could be even faster.
In the courtroom, judges have considerable power and leeway in determining procedures during their trials and in issuing verdicts, even if they may be overruled later. Judges issue verdicts in all trials, since there are no jury trials in Egypt.
They are also backed up by vague laws against "insulting the judiciary." One prominent liberal former lawmaker faces trial on charges of insulting the judiciary after he criticized a court ruling as "politicized" on his Twitter account earlier this year.
Part of what has raised concern recently from critics is that many judges are former police officers. Also, all judges are trained as prosecutors first.
Moreover, the current judge said, Egypt's court system is overwhelmed with cases amid a crackdown that has arrested some 16,000 people. Lawyers say they are hard pressed to keep up with procedures and defendants. In one day, there could be as many as two mass trials in the same courtroom.
Amid the rush, prosecutors have come under criticism for putting together shoddy cases for trial. For example, there has been heavy public pressure to prosecute Mubarak-era officials, particularly police over the killing of protesters during the anti-Mubarak uprising and later protests. However, cases against police have largely been thrown out for lack of evidence. The judge said that was because prosecution cases were weak.
In other cases, judges may be willing to base rulings solely on the prosecutors' cases, the judge said.
"Before the revolution, a murder case would be vetted in details, with evidence and review," he said. "The trial would take time, and the public would be watching closely. Now the number of deaths is huge. They are meant to investigate all the circumstances. How do? And who would?"