Democracy Now! correspondent in Cairo and Nation Institute fellow.
Egypt is facing international criticism after the largest mass sentencing in its modern history. On Monday, 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi were ordered killed over the death of a single police officer in protests last summer. The trial lasted just over two days, with the majority tried in absentia. The exceptionally swift trial and harsh sentences mark a new escalation of the Egyptian military regime’s crackdown on Morsi supporters, which has led to hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. In another closely watched trial, Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy have been denied bail after nearly three months in prison. They are accused of belonging to or aiding a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, two leading Egyptian activists have been freed after over 100 days behind bars. Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Ahmed Abdel Rahman are among a group of activists charged with violating the military regime’s anti-protest law. They and 23 others have been released on bail but still face a trial that resumes next month. We go to Cairo to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Widespread outrage continues to grow after the largest mass sentencing in modern Egyptian history. Human rights groups, the United States and the European Union have denounced an Egyptian court’s recent decision to sentence 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi to death. The convictions followed a trial that lasted just over two days, with the majority of the accused tried in absentia for their alleged role in killing a single police officer last summer. Now, a new mass trial has opened involving 683 people, including top Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie. On Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf denounced the trials.
MARIE HARF: Implementation of yesterday’s verdict, imposing the death penalty on 529 defendants after a two-day trial, would be unconscionable. The verdicts handed down yesterday by the court and the commencement of another mass trial for 683 individuals today in the same court represent a flagrant disregard for basic standards of justice. The imposition of the death penalty for 529 defendants after a two-day summary proceeding cannot be reconciled with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law. And its implementation of these sentences, as I said, would be unconscionable.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The exceptionally swift trial and harsh sentences mark a new escalation of the Egyptian military regime’s crackdown on Morsi supporters, which has led to hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. Amnesty International said the recent mass convictions were, quote, "a grotesque example of the shortcomings and the selective nature of Egypt’s justice system." On Tuesday in Alexandria, students took to the streets in protest. This is Maha Abdel Aziz.
MAHA ABDEL AZIZ: [translated] This is the beginning of an escalation, and we will stop the police. We will not be quiet. We are here today against military rule, and we are all chanting together, whether Muslim Brotherhood, 6 of April Movement, Horeya movement or Ahrar movement. Anyone chanting anything other than "Down with military rule," we are obliged to deal with them. Today we are here united to bring down military rule.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, two leading Egyptian activists have been freed after over a hundred days behind bars. Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Ahmed Abdel Rahman are among a group of activists charged with violating the military regime’s anti-protest law. They and 23 others have been released on bail but still face a trial that resumes next month.
For more, we go to Cairo, Egypt, where we’re joined by Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
Sharif, welcome back to Democracy Now! Start with the sentencing of—what is it—529 people to death.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, Amy. I mean, by all accounts, this was a stunning verdict that was handed down the other day. As you mentioned, 529 people sentenced to death in one of the largest death sentence rulings in modern history across the world. The judge issued his verdict after just one day in court on Saturday, a session in which defense lawyers said they weren’t allowed to present their case at all before the judge. There was—the defendants were, hundreds of them, in a cage in the courtroom, were chanting. The judge ordered security forces to close in on the defense lawyers, and then quickly adjourned the session and said he would issue his verdict two days later. And the verdict came down and really sent shockwaves throughout the international community, has been condemned by the EU, the United States. The Obama administration condemned it, as did local and international human rights groups.
And as you mentioned, that same judge just adjourned another mass trial on many similar charges involving suspected Morsi supporters, including the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie. This trial involved over 680 people, and the judge again adjourned it. The defense boycotted the proceedings following the verdict in the other case. And he’ll issue a verdict in that case on April 28th.
So, this has already sparked protests in Egypt. A group called the Students Against the Coup have called for protests in at least six universities today. Pro-Morsi groups, including the Anti-Coup Alliance, have called for demonstrations, as well. So, this ruling really is only serving to stoke the flames of tension in Egypt further.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, could you explain specifically what this case was about? What are these 529 people convicted of?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: They’re charged with murder, attempted murder, joining an outlawed group with the intention of toppling the government, and stealing government weapons in connection with the attack on a police station in Minya, in southern Egypt. This took place in August following the raids on the pro-Morsi sit-ins, where at least 600 people were killed on August 14th. This set off violence in much of the country in retaliation. In this particular attack regarding this case, one police officer was killed. And in retaliation, these 545 people were put on trial, and as we know, 529 of which are now—have now been sentenced to death. Even judicial officials involved with this case are critical of the ruling. It’s widely expected to be overturned on appeal on proceeding—on procedure alone. So we’ll have to wait and see what happens with that.
But really, it really was a stunning verdict, and especially when you put it in the context of another recent court case in which a trial was brought against police officers who were charged in the killing of 37 prisoners who died of suffocation in a truck in August. One police officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and three others sentenced to one-year suspended sentences, which means they don’t serve any prison time. So, when you compare those to the lack of justice in Egypt’s justice system, it’s very stark.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, defense attorneys in the Muslim Brotherhood case boycotted the proceedings, complaining of judicial irregularities and media censorship. This is defense lawyer Tarek Fouda.
TAREK FOUDA: [translated] Implemented today in the crime of Edwa, there is a boycott by all lawyers to the hearing, an historical stand. And everyone should know that the lawyers’ syndicate will not and would not turn its back on a state based upon the law and the solidification of the spearhead that is the law.
AMY GOODMAN: Hours after Tuesday’s trial began, protests broke out at Minya University. Police lobbed tear-gas canisters, fired in the air, in attempt to disperse hundreds of demonstrators. Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. As I said, this is further stoking flames of tension in Egypt. We’ve seen ongoing protests since Morsi’s ouster back in July. But really, in 2014, a second wave of repression and crackdown has been significantly increasing. Many hundreds, thousands of people have been imprisoned by—at least 16,000 people are in jail, have been imprisoned since Morsi’s ouster in July. The higher count of that puts it at 24,000 in prison. Up to 2,500 people have been killed. And so, we’ve seen some of the worst violence, some of the worst repression in Egypt’s modern history take place. And rulings like this only serve to feed the flames of tension in Egypt.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you say a little about how the regime has responded, if at all, to the condemnation from the EU, the U.S., the international community and the human rights organizations in Egypt to this verdict?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, officials in Egypt typically cite the independence of the judiciary and do not comment on justice cases. We saw the head of the State Information Service speak with Christiane Amanpour on CNN, defend the ruling or say he couldn’t comment on it. So, typically, this has been the typical response of the Egyptian regime to these kinds of cases.
There’s other cases that are ongoing, as well, that have received international attention, particularly the case of the Al Jazeera journalists who are on trial. This is a landmark case. Three Al Jazeera journalists have been imprisoned for nearly three months now after being arrested on December 29th. They’re on trial on terrorism charges. Mohamed Fahmy is a Canadian-Egyptian citizen, who was the acting bureau chief of Al Jazeera English; Australian correspondent Peter Greste; and Baher Mohamed, an Egyptian producer. The third court session of their trial adjourned on Sunday. The next session is being held on March 31st. They’re living in a notorious prison called Tora, sharing a cell, all three of them. They’re locked up 23 hours a day. They’re not allowed any books or writing materials and, up until recently, weren’t even allowed newspapers.
Mohamed Fahmy is suffering an injury in his arm. He had a fractured shoulder unrelated to his arrest, but it was worsened and broke during his detention. During the first weeks of his imprisonment, he was denied any proper medical attention. He was imprisoned in a worse section of the prison, a maximum-security wing known as the Scorpion, where he was held in solitary confinement without a bed, without sunlight, and his condition worsened and healed incorrectly. He can now only lift his right arm a few inches from his waist. He requires surgery and physical therapy to—in order to recover.
So this case has sparked solidarity protests around the world by journalists and by others calling for their release. At this session, they all, from the defendants’ cage, told reporters that the international pressure was very important to their case and that it helped with—alleviate some of their conditions. And so they’re calling on people to continue the pressure, and they’re demanding to be released on a fair trial.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, this is Mohamed Fahmy from the cage in the courtroom condemning the proceedings.
MOHAMED FAHMY: Today’s proceedings show that there is—it seems like all the witnesses have some amnesia or something, Alzheimer’s. There’s a lot of discrepancies in the documents and what they are saying themselves. The prosecutor has a lot to answer for, for allowing the four engineers in the Maspero state TV to have exactly the same copy/paste testimony, that we have seen in our video.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Mohamed Fahmy. So, where does this case go, and why is the Egyptian government trying these three Al Jazeera journalists, Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the case, as I said, they are charged with joining or aiding a terrorist organization, charged with creating false scenes that harm Egypt’s reputation abroad in the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s a very significant escalation in the crackdown on the press in Egypt. It marks one of the rare times that journalists have been put on trial and the first time that journalists face these kinds of very serious terrorism charges, which carry sentences, potential sentences, of up to 15 years in prison.
The Al Jazeera English was broadcasting from Egypt, would cover a lot of opposition voices, a lot of the protests that were taking place on universities and so forth. And we can only imagine or surmise that this is a way to clamp down on any media that was really covering the other side of the Egyptian political sphere. We’ve seen a crackdown on all of the local press. The pro-Morsi channels have all been shut down. The private media and the state media act as a propaganda mouthpiece, for the most part, for the regime, and so it’s very hard to hear opposition voices. People also assume that this is a crackdown also because of Al Jazeera being a Qatari-owned station and the animosity between Qatar and the government in Egypt, and this being a manifestation of that. But by all accounts, press freedom groups across the world have condemned this case, and journalists around the world are calling for their release. And it marks a serious escalation in the repression on press freedom in Egypt.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sharif, could you speak briefly about the release of Alaa Abd El-Fattah and Ahmed Abdel Rahman, along with 23 other activists released on bail, and the significance of their release?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, well, I think, you know, the crackdown has focused largely on the Muslim Brotherhood and his supporters, but it has seriously widened much beyond that and has encompassed all kinds of opposition voices, including Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who’s one of the most prominent activists in Egypt. He was jailed under the Mubarak regime, was jailed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that replaced Mubarak, was issued an arrest warrant under Morsi, and was jailed this time for a hundred days without having a hearing. His case was transferred to a criminal court, and he was refused a hearing up until just a few days ago, in which the judge did grant bail. He is charged with organizing a protest and violating a very draconian protest law that was put in place by the unelected government here in November. And the case is very meaningful because it’s still ongoing. He still could get a verdict.
Alaa was held in a prison section along with other very prominent activists, like Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel of the April 6 Youth Movement, and Douma, as well. And there’s thousands of other protesters who have been rounded up on the streets. Over a thousand were rounded up just on one day alone, on January 25th of this year. They’ve been held in terrible conditions. There’s been widespread accounts of beating, of torture. And prosecutors have been complicit in this crackdown by renewing preventative detention orders, so where preventative detention is being used as a form of punishment. So, many people don’t even have—have not seen a judge and are just being held with 15-day detention orders that continually are renewed. When court cases do come, they’re typically handed something like two to three years in prison for charges like breaking the protest law or gathering or trying to harm national security.
Many of these protesters are poor. They don’t have proper legal representation. Many of them are the only breadwinners in their family. And many of them are young. And this is really seen as a targeting of an entire generation, that its first experience with Egyptian politics has been the revolution. And they have seen over the past three years friends and colleagues and loved ones be jailed or be killed or be wounded in this uprising and the struggle, and I doubt very much that this kind of repression will silence them. And in fact, it’s really stoking the flames of further unrest. So, in 2014, we still have a long way to go to achieve real change in Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, we want to thank you for being with us, Sharif Abdel Kouddous reporting from Cairo, Egypt. And we’re looking at images of Alaa Abd El-Fattah when he was released, holding his baby, who was born when he was in prison under Mubarak, just as he was born as his father was imprisoned years before. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, thanks so much. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll look at Saudi Arabia with Patrick Cockburn in London. Stay with us.