Egypt: Cancel Alexandria Death Penalty

(Beirut) – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should cancel a death sentence confirmed by the country’s highest appeals court on April 25, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The sentence followed a trial that violated the defendant’s due process rights. If carried out, it would be the ninth execution related to an incident of political violence since the military removed the former president in 2013.

An Alexandria criminal court originally sentenced Fadl al-Mawla, an employee of the Engineers’ Club in Alexandria and a preacher affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, to death in 2016 in connection with the killing of a taxi driver during a protest three years earlier. During the trial, the court denied defense lawyers’ requests to hear exonerating testimony from witnesses.

“Egypt’s justice system remains highly politicized, characterized by rampant due process violations,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The last thing the authorities should be doing in this period of extreme political polarization is to put people to death following unfair trials.”

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch called on Egyptian authorities to place a moratorium on the death penalty in view of the sharp rise in the number of death sentences, turbulent political upheaval, and failure to pass a comprehensive transitional justice law in Egypt since the military removed former President Mohamed Morsy in 2013.

The case stemmed from an August 15, 2013, march in Alexandria organized by the Muslim Brotherhood to protest the brutal dispersals of mass sit-ins opposing the military’s removal of Morsy the day before. The dispersals on August 14, 2013, resulted in the deaths of at least 904 people at two protest sites in Cairo.

The Alexandria march blocked traffic on the seaside corniche road, and some of the protesters carried weapons, according pictures posted by residents on social media. Protesters clashed with the police and government supporters. By the end of the day, at least seven people had been killed. At some point during the march, an altercation began between protesters and a taxi driver.

In a video filmed from a balcony, a yellow-and-black Alexandria taxi can be seen maneuvering quickly from one end of the crowd to the other. It accelerates through marchers, possibly hitting some, before it runs into the rear of another car and becomes stuck in traffic. Scores of marchers quickly swarm the taxi, and a sound resembling a gunshot is audible. The person filming the video says, “They shot him?” In another video that begins shortly after the apparent gunshot, the crowd of marchers can be seen attacking the taxi while the person filming screams, “They’re killing him!” The videos do not clearly show the identities of those in the crowd.

In the hours after the march, police set up checkpoints and arrested more than a dozen alleged participants at locations around Alexandria, according to the verdict handed down in June 2016. Police arrested 12 men on Abu Qir Street in the Fleming neighborhood, allegedly confiscating a 9mm pistol, and five other men, including al-Mawla, on Army Road, in front of Alexandria’s Engineers Club as “they tried to escape,” the verdict stated.

Prosecutors alleged that al-Mawla beat the taxi driver, a Christian named Mina Raafat Aziz, and fatally shot him with a birdshot pistol to spread “sectarian strife” in the country. But problems with the state’s case arose from the beginning.

The key witness, Aziz’s passenger, a man named Amr Ahmed Ghanem, told an interviewer on video immediately following the incident that two “thugs” he recognized from his neighborhood killed Aziz. Later, he changed his story, telling prosecutors that al-Mawla stopped the taxi after seeing a cross hanging in Aziz’s car, beat Aziz, and shot him with the pistol.

A defense lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the court allowed him to question Ghanem in court but did not address Ghanem’s contradictions in the judgment.

The defense lawyer said that the court refused to let any defense witnesses testify, including a neighbor of al-Mawla who rode to work with him on the day of the march and an acquaintance of al-Mawla who was present during the attack on the taxi driver and said he did not see al-Mawla there.

Egypt’s criminal procedure code gives judges the discretion to deny defense requests to call witnesses during trial if the defense has not submitted their testimony in advance or presented them for interrogation at the beginning of a trial. Al-Mawla’s legal team had not done so. Egyptian defense lawyers involved in political cases like al-Mawla’s often decline to present witnesses in advance out of fear that National Security agents will arrest or otherwise intimidate them.

The defense lawyer said that the defense team submitted footage captured by Engineers’ Club security cameras showing security forces raiding the club and conducting arrests. A video posted by the club on YouTube showed the damage caused by the raid and included interviews with two witnesses. The lawyer also said that the defense submitted an official statement from the club saying that al-Mawla had been at his workplace during the protest. Police did not recover the birdshot pistol allegedly used to kill Aziz.

In its judgment, the court wrote that it had heard the defense arguments but was satisfied with the prosecution’s evidence and did not need to hear from the defense witnesses.

Prosecutors used Egypt’s colonial-era Assembly Law, passed in 1914, to charge all 17 defendants collectively with the killing of Aziz and six other people who they said had died during clashes between marchers and residents involving firearms, knives, and Molotov cocktails. The Assembly Law bans any gathering larger than five people that endangers “public peace” and allows courts to convict anyone who participated in the gathering for acts, including murder, committed by other participants. It is the subject of a lawsuit filed in administrative court by Egyptian human rights activists, who contend that parliament voted to repeal the law in 1928 and that it should no longer be in effect.

Prosecutors also charged the defendants with stealing Ghanem’s property, destroying Aziz’s car, endangering a public roadway, possessing unlicensed weapons, and belonging to a banned group.

In its ruling, the court stated that the evidence supported a verdict of “intentional murder” against al-Mawla, but not the other defendants, for allegedly shooting Aziz in the chest from a range of approximately one meter. The other defendants, the court stated, had committed the lesser crime of “wounding or beating until death,” which implies unintentional murder.

The court sentenced al-Mawla to death. It sentenced a former Muslim Brotherhood official and member of parliament, al-Mohamedi Sayed Ahmed, to 15 years in prison, and the 14 other defendants to five years in prison.

In March and April, Human Rights Watch sent letters to six Egyptian institutions, including the presidency and Defense Ministry, expressing serious concerns about death sentences handed down in both military and regular courts. Human Rights Watch urged President al-Sisi and Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi not to approve any further death sentences. Egypt should move quickly toward abolishing the death penalty.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a punishment that is not only unique in its cruelty and finality, but also inevitably and universally plagued with arbitrariness, prejudice, and error. At least 10 other people currently face execution in connection with alleged political violence, six of them sentenced in a regular court and four in a military court, after appeals courts confirmed their death penalties earlier in June.