The arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, and illegal death sentences inflicted by the Egyptian government on thousands of people have had a catastrophic effect on the country and constitute a human rights crisis in their own right. But the most disturbing element of this phenomenon is that children have not been spared. Since the 2013 coup, juveniles in Egypt have been arrested, detained with adults, tried in mass trials alongside adults on charges that carry the death penalty, and sentenced to death.
In July 2015, the human rights organization Alkarama estimated that 3,200 children had been arrested in Egypt since July 2013. The UN Working Group Arbitrary Detention has noted a general pattern of “systemic and widespread arbitrary detentions of young individuals” in Egypt.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) requires state parties to establish a separate juvenile justice system to ensure that due process rights for juveniles are upheld and protected. Egypt’s amended Child Law accordingly established a nationwide system of juvenile courts, but there is a loophole – Article 122.
Article 122 of the Child Law stipulates that wherever a child of 15 years or older is accused of committing a crime with an adult, that child will be tried as an adult, alongside adult co-defendants.
Article 122, combined with the concept of collective liability enshrined in the Assembly Law, has ensnared children in Egypt in mass trials. Empowered by the Assembly Law, courts hold hundreds of individuals responsible for one alleged criminal offence and try them jointly. Then, using Article 122, as long as there is one adult among those hundreds of defendants, any children over 15 years old also among the defendants will remain in that mass trial, unable to be referred to juvenile court because of the presence of adult “accomplices.”
Watch: Irish student Ibrahim Halawa discusses his experience of Egyptian prisons, where he spent over four years facing a death sentence for attending a protest.
The presence of juveniles in mass trials has led Egyptian courts to hand death sentences to children in recent years. Mass trial proceedings are so chaotic that defendants and their lawyers frequently are not permitted to speak or address the court. Judges sometimes hand down sentences to hundreds of people after only one hearing, and defendants are never considered as individuals. This means that courts often do not learn the ages of defendants at any time prior to sentencing, and children are sentenced to death without their juvenility being considered.
Both the Child Law and the UNCRC prohibit death sentences for juveniles, so the law should protect juveniles from ending up on death row. Nevertheless, Reprieve has discovered that at least seven children have been sentenced to death in three separate trials in Egypt since 2013, in contravention of both Article 111 of the Child Law and the UNCRC. Many more have been tried on death-eligible charges, with no guarantee that they will be spared the death penalty, even where the court is aware of their juvenility.