THE BLOG

The Politics of Judicial Repression in Egypt

04/30/2014 02:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2014
  • S. Azmat Hassan Former ambassador for Pakistan to Syria, Morocco, Malaysia and currently Adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University

According to a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the government in Egypt was "out of control" when one of its judges sentenced more than 680 people to death in a mass trial that lasted only a few minutes! Last month, a court had delivered a similar sentence on 529 others. It is not at all surprising that these sentences are a travesty of the rule of law and are a blatant attempt by the military-backed Egyptian government to cow down its political opponents of both the right and the left. While the Muslim Brotherhood -- now banned, ostracized and declared a terrorist outfit -- has taken the brunt of the government's repression, another court has banned the activities of the April 6 group, a liberal organization which had played a major role in the revolt against President Mubarak in 2011. The leaders of the April 6 group are already serving jail sentences for reportedly organizing a street protest.

When I read the NYT editorial of April 28 on this subject, I was reminded of two judges who have become notorious in history for the cavalier way they imposed condign punishments on a large number of accused persons, who had the bad luck to appear before them. Judge George Jeffreys in 17th century England was one such judge. He was the most feared judge in his time for not only imposing draconian penalties on the accused but also taking almost fiendish delight in doing so. In today's psychological parlance, Jeffreys would most probably be classed as a sadomasochist. According to the historical record, the anger of the common populace against a twisted man like Jeffreys grew and grew until he himself feared for his life. Another "hanging judge" in more recent times was the notorious Iranian Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali. This gentleman operated during the turbulent early aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Khalkhali, reportedly many times, hardly took a few minutes to finalize a case and award capital punishment to persons who, more often than not, were considered enemies of the Iranian Revolutionary regime. When the dreaded Nematollah Nasiri, head of the Shah's feared secret police appeared for sentencing before Khalkhali, reports suggest that the latter dispensed from the formality of a formal hearing and instead shot him dead! If other rumors of that time are to be believed, the hapless former prime minister during the Shah's reign, Amir Abbas Hoveida, was also dispatched personally by Khalkhali with a Chinese-style bullet to the back of the head.

In a sense, the two judges who have sentenced more than 1000 Egyptians to death are also hanging judges. Mercifully, the condemned prisoners can appeal to a higher court where observers feel their death sentences are likely going to be overturned on procedural grounds. The response so far, apart from Amnesty International, to these unprecedented sentences imposed by a compliant judiciary, reportedly under the thumb of the Egyptian government, has not elicited much criticism. As far as the Arab world is concerned, there has been no immediate reaction to the latest judicial outrage in Egypt. The other major country in the region, Syria, is racked by a civil war and other parts of the Middle East are also in the throes of unrest and disequilibrium.

As far as Western countries are concerned, one can expect pro forma criticism but not much else. It appears that the West has lost the quality of moral indignation which it did express sometimes in the past to castigate egregious behavior in different parts of the world. The United States has given what the NYT called a "shockingly weak statement." Washington policymakers are probably scratching their heads trying to fashion an appropriate response as only last week the United States had announced the supply to the Egyptian military of 10 state-of-the-art Apache helicopters ostensibly as a counter-terrorism measure to quell the insurgency in the Sinai. Also, the Obama administration has reportedly announced a grant of $650 million in aid which is a clear sign of doing "business as usual" with the Egyptian military authorities. Field Marshal Abdul Fatah-Sisi, the defense minister who had deposed Mohammed Morsi, the democratically elected prime minister, in July 2013, is likely to be elected the next Egyptian president. He is reported to be widely popular currently among a large cross-section of the Egyptian public (barring of course the banned Muslim Brotherhood which also reportedly has formidable support). However, if he fails to improve the lot of the common man his popularity may take a downward turn as public opinion can sometimes be notoriously fickle.

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