Egypt’s use of the death penalty has spiralled out of control. In the nearly six years since now-President Abdelfattah el-Sisi took power on 3 July 2013, Egyptian courts have recommended thousands of death sentences, many in mass trials of dozens or even hundreds of defendants. Children have not been spared, despite domestic and international legal safeguards that should protect them from receiving death sentences. This is a human rights crisis of huge proportions – with thousands of lives in Egypt hanging in the balance.
Since taking power, el-Sisi has launched a broad and violent offensive on the fundamental rights and freedoms of people in Egypt. Though previous incarnations of the Egyptian state – including the regimes of deposed presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi – were responsible for widespread violations of international human rights law, conditions under the Sisi regime have deteriorated markedly.
Stolen Youth, a report published by Reprieve in 2018, described how the Sisi government has moved to quash dissent on all fronts, committing a catalogue of human rights violations in the process. A prominent element of this crackdown has been the use of mass trials and mass death sentences as political weapons to silence opposition to the government.
In the more than five years since el-Sisi came to power, Egyptian courts have carried out dozens of mass trials. For the purposes of this report, a mass trial is defined as one in which a court tried 15 or more defendants simultaneously. Between 3 July 2013 and 23 September 2018, Egypt carried out at least 45 such mass trials in which at least one death sentence was handed down.
Draconian laws, either drafted or reintroduced for use by the Sisi government, form the framework of Egypt’s mass trial system. In particular, Law 10/1914, also known as the “Assembly Law”, enshrines the concept of joint enterprise, allowing the state to hold unlimited numbers of defendants jointly liable for criminal acts committed by one co-defendant.
The Sisi government’s mass trial programme, underpinned by the Assembly Law, has allowed for a drastic increase in Egypt’s application of the death penalty. Between the 2011 revolution that unseated Mubarak and 3 July 2013, Egyptian courts recommended at least 152 preliminary death
sentences and the government carried out one execution. By comparison, between 3 July 2013 and 23 September 2018 – the date when Reprieve stopped collating data for this report – Egyptian courts recommended at least 2,443 preliminary death sentences, and at least 144 executions were carried out by the state. In at least five separate trials during this period, courts recommended death sentences for 75 or more defendants at once.
These mass trials and death sentences depend on a chain of human rights abuses that extends from the time of detention through sentencing. Defendants are often subject to arbitrary arrest, with little or no legitimate justification. Egyptian security forces have arrested tens of thousands of people in the last five years, and the United Nations now describes arbitrary detention in Egypt as a “chronic problem.” Torture for the purpose of extracting confessions—a common practice in the lead-up to mass trials—is so widespread that this practice has been described as a “torture assembly line.”
Security forces have subjected hundreds of people to enforced disappearance, many of whom are later sentenced in mass trials. Thousands of children have been unlawfully arrested since July 2013, and are often tried in mass proceedings alongside adult defendants.
Egypt’s mass trial complex does not provide for trials that meet international minimum standards for the protection of due process and fair trial rights. Such trials have been conducted without respect for international law, which is binding on Egypt, including, but not limited to, the right to be tried without undue delay, to have access to legal counsel, to be granted adequate time and facilities in the preparation of an individual defence, to call or examine witnesses, and to be free from self incrimination.
Defendants in mass trials are also routinely charged with—and sentenced to death for—trumped up terrorism offences related to the exercise of fundamental rights, especially the right to freedom of assembly. Attendees at peaceful protests and demonstrations are frequently accused of involvement in terrorism and tried in mass proceedings, often alongside dozens or hundreds of other protesters. In some cases, defendants receive death sentences for alleged lethal offences they did not commit; in others, people are sentenced to death on nebulous, non-lethal charges related to “membership” in alleged terrorist organisations. This is indicative of the extent to which the Sisi regime has exploited its widely condemned legislative framework in a way that stretches far beyond what is considered permissible according to accepted international minimum standards on the death penalty and counterterrorism.
These violations have led the United Nations to repeatedly condemn Egypt’s mass trials and its use of the death penalty. The former UN Secretary General expressed concern over “preliminary mass death sentences (…) that clearly appear not to meet basic fair trial standards.” The past three UN High Commissioners for Human Rights have respectively referred to the use of mass trials and the death penalty as being “rife with procedural irregularities”, and “obscene”. They have termed any resulting executions “a gross and irreversible miscarriage of justice,” and called for a moratorium on the death penalty in Egypt. UN Special Procedures mandates, including the Special Rapporteurs on torture, summary executions and the independence of judges and lawyers, have also condemned Egypt’s use of the death penalty, expressing shock at the “repeated and deliberate use of mass death sentences,” in which “the courts have become instrumental in the arbitrary and politically motivated prosecutions by the State,” and describing mass trials and death sentences as a “mockery of justice” and a “clear violation of international law.