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Well over two decades ago, one of my favourite university tutors in family law often delighted in reminding me of an expression that Charles Dickens had popularised in Oliver Twist. Was it not Bumble who had professed to Brownlow that the law is an ass - or to be more faithful to 19th century diction, "The law is a ass - a idiot [sic]"?
As an international lawyer, I have over the years become increasingly more convinced that the executive, legislative and judicial organs of a state should remain independent from each other. Much as I know this is not always the case in the strictest sense, in many parts of the world, I do fret Egypt is now slowly joining this unpalatable league too.
Let us examine the facts summarily. In one case, a judge in a court in El Minya, in Upper Egypt, confirmed death sentences for 37 people and imposed life imprisonment sentences on another 491. In a second case, he ruled that 683 individuals – including Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Badie – should be sentenced to death. Those criminal charges included, among other things, an attack on a police station on August 14, 2013 and the tragic death of a policeman belonging to the banned MB movement, inciting violence as well as participating in a gathering of more than five persons with the intention of committing crimes.
Once the death sentences are delivered by the court, the custom in Egypt is that they are referred to the Grand Mufti who either ratifies or rejects them. This then opens up a 60-day window to lodge an appeal, or else to ask for a retrial in the case of sentences delivered in absentia. Of course another customary approach is to commute those sentences to life.
But in the present instances, are we perhaps witnessing the case of an overzealous judge who somehow metes out justice in painfully brief sessions without necessarily perusing all the affidavits, often without defence lawyers, let alone family or journalists, present during the court proceedings? The anachronistic legal term "hanging judge" creeps into mind here.
Mind you, I can also see another context for those verdicts. According to government figures, at least 496 people, including 57 civilians, have died in attacks by armed groups between July 2013, when then President Mohamed Morsi was deposed, and March 2014. Such violence is detrimental to the hopes of a country that wishes to restore peace and order so as to re-build its infrastructures. But as leading organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have opined, wholesale judgements are certainly not an answer to violence. After all, it is the respect of human rights, not the trampling on fundamental rights, which can ultimately help render a country safer.
Reacting to the sentences by Judge Saeed Youssef, High Judge Ahmed el-Meraghy from the Court of Appeal in Cairo, defended the judiciary in Egypt by suggesting that they are independent from any political influence or interference. However, I cannot square such a statement with the reality of a criminal justice system that, in my opinion, seems neither fully independent nor fully impartial. If anything, wholesale sentences at an almost industrial scale raise many legal hackles and suggest that those could well be flawed procedures and unfair trials exhibiting a painful lack of due process.
Opacity of charges
One irony here is that Badie, now sentenced to death himself, is the same man who reputedly said "silmiyyatouna aqwa min al rasass", meaning: "Our peacefulness is stronger than the bullet," although it is also undeniably true that some MB supporters across the country have resorted to violence as a tool of protest. But in the shadow where the political and judicial tiers overlap, the judicial authorities have now also allegedly outlawed the secular April 6 Movement that actually spearheaded the popular uprisings against both Mubarak and Morsi – with two of their leaders in jail. Add to this the opacity of charges against all those young men and women who are sadly languishing in prison – whether because they flouted the protest laws or spoke out against the system – and all the detained journalists. No wonder my legal levels of concern – inevitably and understandably – mount up.
However, let me also come clean. I have in the past opposed the rule of Morsi because I deemed it inimical with the overall long-term and future interests of Egypt. In my opinion, the Muslim Brotherhood simply misruled Egypt. But the answer is neither to ban them outright nor to have the judiciary act willy-nilly as a tool for angry vengeance against those who represent a current ideology or political force in the country. All Egyptians deserve a robust judiciary that upholds those rights and freedoms guaranteed under international law.
Egypt today is not only in the cross-hairs of fresh presidential elections, it is also at a critical crossroads. It needs stability and a sense of social cohesion if it is to overcome its dire economic woes. But it also needs the support of all those democratic forces that can help strengthen and consolidate its future. None of this can truly be achieved by polarising the country with sentences that seem to lack the requisite forensic due diligence or any genuine independence.
So is the law an ass after all? I think not! But we lawyers at times misapply, misuse and even – dare I add – abuse the law when we besmirch it with our own political considerations. If Egypt were to avoid the lurking dangers of being viewed as a country that has contempt for the rule of law as much as for its rich traditions, it should overturn those sentences and redress those lapses. Otherwise, it is alas not inconceivable that Egypt could well wake up one day and find itself – hazardously – on the judicial skids.
This article first appeared on Al Jazeera (30 April 2014) and is reproduced with grateful acknowledgement: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/04/egypt-judicial-skids-20...
© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopianTweet