Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has announced plans to block $650 million in military aid to Egypt after an Egyptian court sentenced to death 683 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the group’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie. Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, described the judicial proceedings as a "sham trial." Leahy’s announcement comes a week after the Obama administration said it would ease the suspension of military aid to Egypt that followed the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi last year. In another controversial move, an Egyptian court has banned the April 6 movement, a pro-democracy group that played a key role in the popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011. We get an update on these developments live from Cairo with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. We also speak with Mohamed Soudan, the exiled foreign relations secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Egypt. On Tuesday, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont announced plans to block the Obama administration from sending $650 million in military aid to Egypt after an Egyptian court sentenced to death 683 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the group’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie. Leahy, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, described the judicial proceedings as a "sham trial."
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: It’s a flaunting of human rights by the Egyptian government. It’s an appalling abuse of the justice system, which are fundamental to any democracy. Nobody—nobody—can justify this. It does not show democracy; it shows a dictatorship run amok. It is a total violation of human rights. So I’m not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military. I’m not prepared to do that until we see convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Senator Patrick Leahy. His comments came a week after the Obama administration announced it would ease the suspension of military aid to Egypt that followed the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi last year. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy at the State Department. He spoke to reporters after the meeting.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We want the interim government to be successful. We are hopeful and look for a political process of inclusivity, a constitution implemented, which brings people politically to the table and broadens the democratic base of Egypt. Egypt’s constitution is a positive step forward. It has taken steps, and they are moving now to an election. But even as these positive steps have been taken, we all know there have been disturbing decisions within the judicial process, the court system, that have raised serious challenges for all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: In another controversial move, an Egyptian court has banned the April 6 movement, the pro-democracy group that played a key role in the popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Cairo, Egypt, we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous via—and we’re joined by Mohamed Soudan, the foreign relations secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s speaking to us from exile in Britain.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Sharif, give us the lay of the land right now in Egypt. What has taken place?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, as you mentioned, a really shocking ruling. And in the last five weeks, this same judge has sentenced more than 1,100 people to death, some of the biggest death sentence rulings in world history, and really cases which lack even the minimum requirements of due process. This latest case is over 680 people in Upper Egypt, in the southern part of the country, sentenced for the killing of a single police officer in the attack on a police station on August 14th following the violent dispersal of two pro-Morsi sit-ins that left hundreds dead. Only about 60 of those who were in this case were actually arrested; the rest were in absentia. Under Egyptian law, the—it those people turn themselves in, they should be granted a retrial. So, the verdicts are not final. Appeals—they are expected to be overturned.
But we—I mean, what this does say about the judiciary, or at least this judge, is that more than any other time in recent history the Egyptian judiciary seems to be a willing partner in state repression, that it’s not acting whatsoever as a check on the executive. If we look in history, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, he set up special courts to try dissidents. Even under Mubarak, when they were trying members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition voices, they would have to resort to military courts or exceptional state security courts in order to get lengthy sentences, because the civil judiciary was either letting people go or giving them short or not long terms. And we saw in 2005, 2006, an uprising by judges who were protesting electoral fraud, and that helped lay the groundwork for the 2011 uprising. So, there has been a semblance of independence in the past, but what we’ve seen in this latest period, not just these two mass death sentence rulings, but rulings—many rulings against protesters, against dissidents, sentencing people to jail, means that this judiciary has become a willing partner in the state repression.
This particular judge has a reputation for very harsh sentences. He recently sentenced a dozen people to 88 years in prison for rioting, and he also acquitted about a dozen police officers for the killing of 17 protesters during the 2011 uprising. And also, if we look at just the sheer number of people in this latest case, 680 people in this small town, it’s almost as if every person knows someone or has an extended family member who has been sentenced to death now. And the local papers have reported a mother saying that her son was sentenced to death even though he died three years ago. A local human rights group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, documented how two people sentenced to death for this August 14th riot were actually in Libya at the time. So, this really doesn’t satisfy even the basic—the basic requirements of due process. And, of course, this is the same judge who last month sentenced 529 people to death. On that same day, the other day, he commuted all but 37 of those death sentences. That’s still a very high number for Egyptian law. If we want to make a comparison, when—following the assassination of the Egyptian president, Anwar El Sadat, in 1981, five people were sentenced to death.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Let’s bring in Mohamed Soudan into the conversation, foreign relations secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Could you explain the response of the Muslim Brotherhood to this verdict?
MOHAMED SOUDAN: I really want to assure all what Mr. Sharif just said, but also I want to add something from my perspective about what went on in [inaudible] court, that it’s only—it’s not only one judge. They are three judges, and any verdict to be agreed upon for this verdict or court decision. I think these guys, the three judges, are under big pressure from the Egyptian intelligence to issue these kind of verdicts. It’s unbelievable verdicts. It’s against the humanity. It is something no one can believe it. The judges, they are supreme judges; they are not young judges. They never do something like this. Number one, they released all the opposites, which they kill rebels in the revolution of the 25th of January, 2011. And now they are coming to issue a verdict. It’s the more than 700 people sentenced to death, and almost 500 people to be sentenced for a while, for 25 years, just to kill one officer. It’s something unbelievable, without any investigation, never giving space or time to the defenders to defend themselves or the lawyers to talk.
Here is—it’s a political verdict, 100 percent, coming from the—an order from the political authority. It’s away, away from justice. By this verdict, it’s already killed the justice in Egypt, after killing the democracy by Sisi and his group of thugs, which they occupied Egypt after they’ve been free from the military regime for more than 60 years. Now Egypt is under police state. It’s under a military state, 100 percent. This is just the beginning. And if the international community keeps silent towards all these crimes, this is a crime. This is—this is not a court. This is—those judges, even they issued this unbelievable court—the verdict. And there are others, because they sent also—or they issued another verdicts like 83-year sentences for some other protesters just to protest, or 11 years for young girls, 14 years old, just to protest at 7:00 in the morning. Here is the way which is the military coup authority in Egypt after the 3rd of July. They could control the judiciary to do whatever they want to do, to bring the—to stop or to scare the protesters in the street, to stop demonstration, to stop protesting against the coup.
But we will say that by that way, by this kind of verdict, you will not stop us to protest against you. We will squeeze us to go to violence or to commit violence. You will not ever provoke us to go to violence, because we have strategy. We have a strategy since 86 years ago to be struggling against the injustice, against the unfair trials, these crazy verdicts, with a peaceful struggling. We never will go—
AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Soudan, I wanted to ask about Mohammed Badie, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, also being sentenced to death. And what’s happening with President Morsi right now?
MOHAMED SOUDAN: Not yet, not yet. It is pending, or still the process of the trial is still going on. He has been involved or engaged for many, many crimes. It’s comic, actually. It’s a comic trial.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re saying—you’re saying President Morsi is on trial now.
MOHAMED SOUDAN: Yeah, it’s many trials, not only one. It’s many trials. But [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: Right, but Mohammed Badie being sentenced to death.
MOHAMED SOUDAN: Yes, yes, this is what issued yesterday. Mohammed Badie—
AMY GOODMAN: And what is your response to that? What is Mohammed Badie’s significance to the Muslim Brotherhood?
MOHAMED SOUDAN: He is—he is the general guidance of the Muslim Brotherhood in all the world. He said that yesterday: "If you kill us, we will not stop. Our people will not stop the protest." And this is what we always mention, that if we’ve been killed struggling to get justice, to get democracy, to get dignity to our people, then it’s a very cheap price. We never stop. We never stop.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, another opposition group targeted by the Egyptian government is the April 6 movement, a pro-democracy group that played a key role—
MOHAMED SOUDAN: Yes.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: —in the popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011. April 6 member Mohamed Yousef said the group would defy an Egyptian court’s ban on its activities.
MOHAMED YOUSEF: [translated] This is a decision only on paper that will not stop the activities of 6th of April. To the contrary, tomorrow we will be in the streets to tell them that this banned group is only banned in your imagination and in your dreams. This ruling will not stop the members of the movement demonstrating, will not stop them from saying what they believe, will not stop us standing up to any despot however powerful he might be and however many institutions he can control to push his ideas through.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was April 6 Youth Movement member Mohamed Yousef. Sharif, could you talk about what’s happening with the April 6 Youth Movement? Its leaders are in prison. And also explain—you talked about how the judiciary in Egypt was previously more independent. What do you think accounts for the fact that they’re complicitous with the military government in all of these trials?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the April 6 Youth Movement is a very important group here in Egypt. It was founded on April 6, 2008—that’s where it takes its name from—to support what became a thwarted strike in the Delta town of Mahalla el-Kubra and has since become an important protest group and organizing group. It played a key role in the 2011 uprising. Following Mubarak’s ouster, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over, they continued with their street pressure against the military council. You know, they were feted by everyone in Egypt initially after the uprising, but then very quickly demonized. The military council continued to portray them as foreign agents and saboteurs, and this court ruling accuses them of espionage and defamation of the state.
The Muslim Brotherhood also vilified and demonized the April 6 Youth Movement, especially when they began to protest what they saw as violations by the Morsi government. We have to remember that the April 6 Youth Movement actually supported Mohamed Morsi in the runoff against Ahmed Shafik in the 2012 presidential election. They supported him as a protest vote against Ahmed Shafik, who they saw as representing the old regime. They began to break away from the Morsi government in the fall of 2012 following the killing of one of their members by police forces, known as Jika, in November of 2012 and Morsi’s fateful constitutional declaration that gave him far-reaching powers. And they eventually began to protest against the Muslim Brotherhood and eventually joined the big anti-Morsi protests on June 30th. However, after Morsi was ousted by the military on July 3rd, they quickly began to criticize the military regime that came in its place.
And so, they really have taken principled positions over the past three years, standing up against authoritarian governments and different authoritarian regimes. And they’ve been vilified by much of the state media, much of the private media. And their founders, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, are now serving three-year prison sentences for violating a very draconian protest law that was passed by the Cabinet last fall.
And they are now calling for a protest today to demonstrate against this latest court ruling. This is the same court that ruled against the Muslim Brotherhood back in September, banning the group, which resulted in a thousand of the group’s schools and charities and clinics being shuttered and having their assets frozen. The April 6 Youth Movement has far less in terms of that. We’ll have to see, going forward, whether this will actually have an effect on the group itself, whether more people will be arrested or not. But certainly a very troubling ruling and one, I think, that many in the April 6 Youth Movement will not take lying down.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Soudan, your response, as a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood, to the banning of the April 6 movement, which has often been very critical of the Muslim Brotherhood?
MOHAMED SOUDAN: I want to say that the military coup authority, they will take, one by one, all their partners in their conspiracy. When they did their conspiracy on the 3rd of July, the April 6 movement were—they were a partner for them. But I believe that they do not understand what’s going on in the ground in that time. They don’t know that there are a conspiracy. What they are doing, that they share, they’ve been failed in the fabricated crisis, which in the Egyptian intelligence, in the Egyptian army intelligence, as well, was the conspiracy against the legitimacy, against the democracy, to have the power back to the military regime, because they are not satisfied that the—that the power hand over to the civilian in that election of the 2012, 2012, and got the power in the hand of President Morsi, the first elected president in Egypt. They are not satisfied about it. And then, they are trying to make this conspiracy for one year, and then, unfortunately, they are some of the movement. They do not understand the reality in Egypt, and then they share, Sisi and his group and Salvation Front, to be anti-Morsi and to uprise against Morsi and the regime. And they don’t understand that all the crisis in that time, that was being fabricated, like the lack of electricity or lack of water or lack of fuel. That was fabricated crisis. The intelligence, Egyptian intelligence, did it against Morsi, and they have a lot of partners. Unfortunately, April 6, they were a part from this conspiracy, but I understand they didn’t know that.
But now they woke up, and they understood that the military regime, or the military coup regime, they are going to eat all their partners. All the partners, if they’ve been opposed them, then they’re going to take them and send them to jail, or maybe they’re going to kill them, because this is the system. They don’t want any opposition: "If you are on my side, then you are my friend; if you are against me, then I’ll kill you—either kill you or send you to jail." That is the way of the—
AMY GOODMAN: One of the voices of Egypt’s 2011 revolution and its aftermath has just died in an accident. On Tuesday, Bassem Sabry reportedly took a fatal fall off a balcony in Cairo, a prominent journalist and strategist for the liberal party, Dostour. I wanted, Sharif, to ask you about his significance. And also, you have gotten a chance to interview one of the Al Jazeera reporters who was jailed. On Monday, Al Jazeera served Egypt with a $150 million compensation claim for what it said was damage to its media business inflicted by Cairo’s military-backed rulers, three Al Jazeera journalists being tried in Egypt on charges of aiding members of the, quote, "terrorist" organization. Can you talk about both?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, first, on Bassem Sabry, really a tragic, tragic loss here in Egypt, really a wonderful humanist person, someone who had very clear, levelheaded analysis, very astute analysis of what was happening in Egypt. In the most polarizing and difficult times, he remained optimistic, yet levelheaded, and was really just a wonderful human being. And this is really a tragic loss and very difficult to bear in these very tough times in Egypt right now, that we have bad news like this and lose one of Egypt’s best to such a tragedy.
With regards to the Al Jazeera journalists, I’ve been covering the trial very closely, have had an opportunity to interview one of them, Mohamed Fahmy, when he got a scan on his shoulder. The trial, the next session of the trial, the seventh session, is scheduled for May 3rd, which is Saturday, which—
AMY GOODMAN: Looks like we just lost Sharif in Cairo, Egypt. So I want to thank you both for being with us. Our satellite has now gone down. Both Mohamed Soudan, foreign relations secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party, political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, thank you for joining us from Britain, and thank you very much to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo.
When we come back, we will be talking about the Wisconsin voter ID law that has been struck down by a federal judge. Stay with us.
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