In March, an Egyptian judge shocked the world by sentencing 529 men to die for the murder of a single police officer. On April 28th the same judge outdid himself, condemning another 683 men in a separate case to the gallows. This raised his personal one-month total of death sentences beyond the number of people known to have been judicially executed worldwide last year, excluding China, and close to the 1,378 that America has injected, electrocuted, shot or gassed since reintroducing capital punishment back in 1976.
Yet the most populous Arab country may not carry out such lethal punishments. Only a fraction of the condemned men are in police custody, and Egyptian law prescribes an automatic retrial for anyone sentenced in absentia, should they turn themselves in. The judge, Said Yusuf, has already reduced all but 37 of his earlier sentences to life in prison, apparently on the advice of the Grand Mufti, a government-appointed religious authority who may also query the later mass sentence.
Moreover, Egypt’s state prosecutor has ordered a judicial review of the two trials. Given that lawyers claim numerous irregularities, from the use of torture against their clients, to the judge’s failure to consider reams of evidence, to assertions that some of the accused were abroad, or crippled, or even deceased at the time of the alleged crime, it is highly likely that appeals will overturn Mr Yusuf’s mass convictions.
In many ways, however, the damage has been done, and not only to the hundreds of mostly poor, rural families whose lives have been overturned by these cases. Mr Yusuf’s zeal has provoked a storm of condemnation around the world, as well as in Egypt. In a direct response to the sentences, American senators moved to block future deliveries of military aid. This called into question the Obama administration’s recent decision to resume previously contracted supplies of military equipment, a move meant to ease post-coup strains between America and what was once its most important Arab ally.
The spectre of mass hangings has also rekindled sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has struggled to sustain protests since its ousting in a popular coup last July. The condemned men are a fraction of the estimated 16,000 people, mostly Brotherhood members or supporters, who have been shunted into Egyptian prisons since the coup. Evidence has mounted of severe crowding, routine torture and other abuses. On April 30th these detainees called for a nationwide one-day hunger strike in protest.
Source: The Economist