By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani | Inter Press Service
Cairo -- Egyptian courts have handed down unprecedented numbers of death sentences in recent months, most of them for violent crime. "Two hundred and thirty death sentences in six months", read the Jun. 24 headline of independent daily Al- Dustour. "Fifty in the last week alone".
The most high-profile case has been that of Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a high- ranking member of the ruling National Democratic Party, convicted of conspiring in the murder of Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim a year ago in Dubai. On Jun. 25 Mustafa and an accomplice were sentenced to death.
The verdict was quickly approved by the Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa. Under Egyptian law all capital sentences must be approved by the Grand Mufti, a state-appointed religious authority.
On Jun. 13, 24 men were sentenced to death after clashes in a land dispute in the Delta governorate Wadi Natroun last year led to the death of 11 people. On Jun. 17, a metal worker found guilty of murdering two female university students on the outskirts of Cairo last year was given the capital sentence.
The following day, another six people were given the death penalty for the murder of two colleagues in the urban governorate Giza. And on Jun. 21, 11 Bedouin people in the Sinai Peninsula were sentenced to death for killing the head of a rival clan.
Again, on Jun. 30, seven defendants received the death penalty for the killing of 13 people in clashes in a land dispute in the Delta city Benha.
"Capital sentencing is hardly new to Egypt," Azza Quraim, social science professor at the Cairo-based National Centre for Social and Criminal Research told IPS. "But the number of death sentences handed down by the judiciary in recent weeks is without precedent."
"So many death sentences have been handed down by the courts recently that the Grand Mufti has had little time to concentrate on his other responsibilities," Alaa Eddin Al-Kifafi, psychology professor at Cairo University told IPS.
Use of the death penalty has increased over the past decade, although there is little official data available. But according to local and international human rights organisations, 209 death sentences were handed down between Jan. 1 of this year until mid-June. And more followed later last month.
Under Egyptian law, 90 different crimes can warrant execution. These include premeditated murder, rape, drug-related offences, and also "political offences" such as "attempting to overthrow the regime by force."
Local experts partially attribute the sharp spike in executions to a recent surge in violent crime.
"Incidents of violent crime have increased markedly in recent months and years," Quraim said. "Extreme violence, generally unknown in Egyptian society before, appears to be becoming a behavioural norm."
The rising crime has been blamed partly on Egypt's painful economic conditions. While an estimated half of the population of 82 million lives below the poverty line, the economic crisis has aggravated the situation by further swelling the ranks of the unemployed.
"For the average citizen, there are fewer job opportunities than ever, which has led to a widespread sense of hopelessness and despair," said Al-Kifafi. "And psychologically speaking, the link between feelings of despair and violent behaviour is well known and thoroughly documented.
"The wave of recent death penalties appears to be a heavy-handed attempt by the state to deter citizens from committing violent crimes," Al-Kifafi added.
"In Egypt, there is a massive gap between a tiny wealthy elite and an enormous poor class," says Quraim. "Therefore, a popular sense of injustice - coupled with widespread unemployment - represents the chief reason for the increase in violent crime.
"What's more, the glacial pace of Egypt's legal system, coupled with the frequent lack of implementation of court verdicts, has made the public lose faith in the judiciary and begin taking their perceived rights by force," she added.
But according to Quraim, the state's hasty recourse to capital punishment is a misguided - and socially destructive - approach to the dilemma, and represents "its own kind of mass murder."
In the Wadi Natroun case, she said, "11 people died in the initial land dispute, but a full 24 people were subsequently sentenced to death for their roles in the incident. The state, which should have determined who the legal owner of the land was in the first place, is at least partially responsible.
"By issuing harsh verdicts such as the death penalty, judicial authorities have begun to practice their own kind of violence against society," Quraim added. "Instead, the government should tackle the problem by providing justice and security to all; by drafting laws to protect the people, and not just the wealthy political and business elites."