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April 15 2010 | EGYPT


Death sentences rise with poverty

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EGYPT: Death Sentences Rise With Poverty

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Mar 31 - Egyptian courts are handing down death sentences with "alarming frequency" as the state attempts to use capital punishment to stem rising crime rates.

Over 269 death sentences were imposed in 2009, up from 86 the previous year. Rights groups say the courts appear to be acting under government pressure to send a strong message to the public.

"We've haven't seen anything like this in over 200 years," says Nasser Amin, director of the Cairo-based Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession. "The numbers are alarming. In one case last year 24 people were sentenced to hang, and in another a judge handed down 10 death sentences."

Egypt has expanded its application of capital punishment since President Hosni Mubarak took office in 1981. Capital offences, previously confined to premeditated murder and crimes against the state, now number over 40 and include drug trafficking, rape and arson.

"For the last 20 years, whenever this regime has faced a problem, especially a social one, it has tried to solve it by making the crime punishable by death," says Amin. "One member of parliament recently proposed public executions in Tahrir Square (in downtown Cairo)."

A report released last week by the National Council for Services and Social Development identified population growth, high unemployment, low wages, and the breakdown of family life as leading contributors to crime. It said widespread corruption and a lack of faith in the country's legal system had prompted many people to take their perceived rights by force.

"Society is suffering from despair and frustration that leads to resorting to violence," the report says.

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in December 2007 calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions and review of the use of capital punishment. Egypt voted against the resolution, and has said it would not abolish the death penalty.

"It's a deterrent, especially in murder cases," Mufid Shehab, minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs, said during a recent legislative session. "The penalty is carried out with full guarantees of a fair trial over several stages, and the accused is not executed until the mufti has weighed in on the case."

Egyptian law requires the Grand Mufti to be consulted on all capital sentences. The state-appointed religious authority must determine whether the punishment contravenes Sharia (Islamic law), which mandates death in only four cases: premeditated murder, armed robbery, adultery and apostasy.

The mufti's opinion is non-binding and only President Mubarak has the power to pardon or commute a sentence.

Local opponents of capital punishment argue that defendants are not given fair trials. Confessions are often extracted by torture. Emergency laws in effect since 1981 allow the government to try civilians in military courts without the right of appeal.

Death sentences handed down by regular criminal courts can be appealed to the Court of Cassation. However, the court does not re-examine the evidence, it only determines whether due process was followed.

While Egypt's judiciary is nominally independent, Amin accuses judges of bowing to government pressure to act as partners in ensuring the safety of society. He says their heavy sentences absolve the government of its duties of preventing crime.

"The role of policing society is for the police, not for judges," says Amin. "The judge's role is to deliver the law."

Last June a judge handed down death sentences to 24 defendants involved in clashes that erupted over a disputed piece of land in Wadi Natroun, north of Cairo. Eleven people were killed in a gun battle that lasted 48 hours.

"More people were sentenced to death by the judge than died in the shoot- out," says Hafez Abu Seada, chairman of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR). "This was completely the wrong verdict as the people died shooting each other. This was not premeditated murder."

Abu Seada is also concerned with the high level of corruption and negligence in the Egyptian police force and judicial system, which increases the risk of executing an innocent person. He cites several recent cases where this is believed to have occurred.

"This is the only sentence that cannot be reversed," he says. "After execution no one can talk about mistakes."


Negad El-Borai, a human rights lawyer, says Egypt's experience has proven that capital punishment is an ineffective deterrent to crime.


"The government applied the death penalty for drug offences for over 20 years, but the volume of hashish (trafficked) is higher now than ever," he says. "You cannot stop crimes by using the death penalty or long-term jail sentences. If you want to solve these problems you must go to the roots of the problems."  

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