Does Egypt Execution Spree Rest on Coerced Confessions?

by Joe Stork

Egypt’s February 20 execution of nine men brought the total number of judicial executions so far this month to at least 15. The nine had been convicted for their alleged roles in the June 2015 car-bomb assassination of Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat. This was a serious crime, but these convictions came despite serious questions about the fairness of the trial, in particular the defendants’ claims that their confessions had been obtained under torture during incommunicado detention.

In 2016, the Ministry of Interior released a video of some of the men confessing to their participation in Barakat’s killing, claiming that they had received training in Gaza from Hamas, which controls that territory. Televised confessions raise immediate suspicions of coercion, and indeed the men subsequently claimed in court that they had given those confessions under torture.

The men were tried before a “terrorism court.” This is one of a number of special branches of the criminal court set up in August 2013, with judges assigned to specific cases by the Ministry of Justice, shortly after the military coup that overthrew Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi. These courts have been used to prosecute thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers, as well as people protesting government policies.

The presiding judge in the Barakat assassination case, Hassan Farid, has issued well over 100 death sentences since 2014. In this case, despite the defendants’ claims during the trial that they had been tortured, Judge Farid apparently did not refer them to the official Forensic Medical Authority or take any serious steps to investigate their claims.

Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has revived the systematic and widespread use of torture to coerce confessions. In 2017, the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, a leading independent human rights group based in Cairo, said that it had identified 44 persons who had died in custody as a result of torture since August 2013. Human Rights Watch, in a September 2017 report based on extensive interviews with former detainees, concluded that ”police and officers of the National Security Agency regularly use torture during their investigations to force perceived dissidents to confess or divulge information, or to punish them.” Prosecutors rarely follow up on torture complaints, as required by law, “creating an environment of al most total impunity.” The UN Committee Against Torture in June 2017 wrote that the facts it had gathered “lead to the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt” and that “perpetrators of torture almost universally enjoy impunity.”

Egyptian authorities routinely insist that torture is not systematic or widespread, and that complaints are properly investigated. On January 30, 2019, the Office of the Prosecutor-General said that prosecutors had interrogated several of the victims whose cases were detailed in the Human Rights Watch report and claimed that those victims had denied being interviewed by Human Rights Watch or “having been subject to torture or ill-treatment.”

Given security force practices in Egypt, it’s unlikely that any such testimonies were given freely or that the “investigation” was in the least bit impartial. When I worked with Human Rights Watch, I met former detainees who wanted no further contact with authorities, even to file complaints of abuse, out of concern that they would find themselves caught up in new cases against them. Authorities have routinely harassed, interrogated, and jailed lawyers and human rights activists and even judges who support investigating torture claims and promoting accountability. In 2016, the Supreme Judicial Council initiated disciplinary proceedings against Hesham Raouf and Assem Abdel-Gabbar, two judges who had been involved in a workshop to develop a draft anti-torture law. And in 2017, the government ordered the closure of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Violence and Torture, which provided medical services and counseling to victims and documented allegations of torture.

The timing of the latest executions may have been politically motivated, coming just two days after a suicide bombing in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalil covered market district killed three policemen and after a February 16 attack in Sinai that killed 15 military personnel. Retaliatory executions have become something of a pattern. For example, the state executed 15 persons in December 2017 following an attack a week earlier against the defense and interior ministries. In May 2015, the state executed six persons on death row the day after an attack in al-Arish targeting several judges.

Article 70 of the law regulating the Prisons Authority stipulates that families of those sentenced to death are entitled to visit their relatives the day before the date set for execution, which they should be notified of by the prison administration. However, families of the nine men executed on Wednesday were not able to visit them, the lawyer said, adding that they will be allowed to receive the bodies from Zeinhom Morgue on Wednesday.

Joe Stork was until recently the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

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