Egypt’s leading construction tycoon, Hisham Talaat Mustapha, was sentenced to death today together with a former State Security officer for the death of a Lebanese singer. The verdict comes on the heels of a record number of death sentences issued by Egyptian courts this year.
"Find someone else to pull the rope because I’m tired. We didn’t agree on that number," said a sweating Ashmawi to his police senior. Ashmawi in Egyptian folk culture is the executioner whose face is usually the last thing a convicted murderer would see before departing this world, on a judge’s order. The above quote, taken from a cartoon by Mahmoud el-Said in the weekly Al Youm El Sabaa, depicts the public mood in the country, where the death penalty has long been accepted and strongly defended as one of the pillars of justice for murder. But with more than 200 death sentences handed down in the first six months of the current year, according to local press counts, a debate about capital punishment is taking over media outlets.
"Everyone is horrified by this wave of death sentences at the moment in Egypt," said Mohamed Abdel Aziz, a rights lawyer in the Nile Delta town of Damanhour. "What is worrying is not just the number of sentences, but also the number of verdicts per case." A fight over land involving businessmen and criminal thugs from his province saw the massacre of 11 people. A trial in a Damanhour court ended last month with 24 defendants sentenced to death–a number that Abdel Aziz described as "unprecedented in the history of the modern Egyptian justice system." Also in May, a court reinforced a death sentence handed down to 10 defendants for the rape of a 17-year-old in the Nile Delta province of Kafr Al-Sheikh.
During the same month and the following one, the "wave of death sentences continued" in a number of high profile trials, like today’s sentencing of construction tycoon Hisham Talaat Mostafa and former State Security police officer Mohssen el-Sokari for the murder Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim. Another sensational trial of the murderer of Heba Moustafa el-Akkad, the young daughter of Moroccan singer Laila Ghofran and her friend Nadine Gamal Eddin ended also in a death sentence handed down to Mahmoud Eissawi, a 19 year old blacksmith. This caused an outcry, especially with the leaking of a video, obtained by Al-Masry Al-Youm, where Eissawi’s "confessions" were being instructed by a police officer, during the re-enactment of the crime. This was followed by the sentencing of 11 defendants from a Sinai tribe to death in one trial for the murder of killing a 40-year-old man from a rival tribe, wounding his wife and young children.
Sameeha Nasr, head of Crime and Criminal Policies Department at the National Crime and Sociological Research Center in Giza, did not sound as alarmed as other commentators, blaming the media for coining the phrase "wave of executions."
"Expanded coverage of a number of cases that coincidentally happened at the same time, created that impression," she said. "You may feel upset, but the question is: are those people guilty of the crime the law said is punishable by death or not." Nasr was more alarmed with the "rise in violent crime in Egypt. There are many reasons behind that, from the personal to the social. But for sure we can expect a rise triggered by the global financial crisis and poverty."
No official figures for executions are given by the government. However, international rights watchdogs have been voicing their concerns about the high rates of death sentences handed down by Egyptian ordinary and exceptional courts for years.
A 2002 report by Amnesty International found that in 1999 alone at least 108 people were sentenced to death, while over the previous five years (1996-2001) at least 382 people received a similar sentence, with an average of 76 people each year. Over the same period at least 114 executions were cited. Another report prepared for the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice on the use of capital punishment in March 2001, based on information supplied by governments, listed Egypt among 12 countries worldwide where, during the five-year period 1994-1998, more than 100 executions were carried out. In 2008, Amnesty recorded "at least 87 death sentences were passed and at least two people were executed," based on press reports.
"In 2009, we requested detailed figures for 2008 from the Minister of Justice regarding death sentences and executions, commuted sentences or clemencies, as well as people on death row," said Amnesty International’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. "Unfortunately we didn’t receive an answer. We see a rising trend in death sentences, and this is worrying."
Sahraoui also criticized, in a telephone interview from London with Al-Masry Al-Youm, "the very negative role Egypt plays at the UN General Assembly to oppose a resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Two years in a row, Egypt has taken the lead to oppose the resolution which was nevertheless adopted. They were also actively trying to discourage other MENA countries from abstaining or even voting in favor." Why? "One day, the Egyptian government puts a religious argument, the following day, it turns into a ‘sovereignty’ question."
Egypt’s religious establishment routinely comes out against calls for abolishing capital punishment, citing Islamic jurisprudence.
"Islamic Shariaa?" exclaimed Abdel Aziz a lawyer from Damanhour. "These verdicts are issued by humans, not gods. What if there is a mistake? Execution is very dangerous. You cannot reverse it if you turned out to be wrong. Now it’s like the sky is raining death sentences. I support abolishing such sentences."
Sahraoui of Amnesty agreed. "This is not about religion. Knowing the deficiencies in the justice system in Egypt, how can you guarantee the one is guilty?"
Yet, it is still safe to say proponents of capital punishment are not just from the government and the religious establishment, but also ordinary citizens, who regard this as a form of "deterrence" against crime. The issue has also been long dividing scientists as well as human rights activists in Egypt and elsewhere. Nasr, of the National Crime and Sociological Research Center, thinks "capital punishment could be a deterrent for some persons and not for others. We can’t generalize."
But Nasr’s colleagues in the US sound more certain. The latest issue of the US Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology ran a study by a Sociology professor and a graduate student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, examining the opinions of leading criminology experts on the deterrence effects of capital punishment. The results revealed that 88.2% of experts did not think the death penalty deterred murder—"a level of consensus comparable to the agreement among scientists regarding global climate change." The experts, according to the study, believed that existing empirical research did not support the deterrence theory.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), has been one of the first to publicly call for abolishing the death sentence. But he admits that such a campaign isn’t easy. "The death penalty used to belong to a package of taboos for human rights defenders in Egypt," he said, "like sexual rights, reproductive rights, and religious conversion. The human rights community was divided along these lines: There are people who think one should take a position on these issues, others tended to avoid them claiming they belong to ‘Western culture with no relevance to Egypt.’"
Amnesty’s Sahraoui, however, can sense a change in the discourse. "Egyptians rights activists are now taking some initiatives. I’m sure they are overwhelmed by the amount of death sentences. This is bound to generate debate in civil society." Bahgat concurs, "Gradually we can sense some improvement, as there is an increase in diversity within the human rights activist community. Independent and new media, especially bloggers, have made many topics less of a taboo. We have many more advanced discussions today about abortion, ‘Orfi (non-civil) marriage, premarital sex, religion as a notion and the right to not have a religion or convert. And once that happened, the trend is in favor of more openness, as opposed to, say, five years ago."
Bahgat’s EIPR isn’t alone in its calls for ending the death penalty. Other local rights watchdogs like the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights are joining such calls, which were unheard of in the past. Still, human rights activists admit it will take time before such new discourse has an effect on the public which they deem to be still supportive of the death penalty.
"The public might have a position supportive of the death penalty now, but the public isn’t fully informed," said Bahgat. We don’t have the basic information about how many death sentences are issued by the courts; how many executions take place in effect; how many are squashed by the Cassation Court… We don’t know."
Bahgat went on to assure that the current wave of sentences "will stir a debate."