UN Human Rights chief condemns Egypt’s mass trials in maiden speech
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In her first speech to the UN Human Right’s Council (OHCHR) on Monday, the body’s new head, Michelle Bachelet, said she was “shocked” by the death sentences handed down to 75 people in Egypt after a mass trial there.
The verdict, which a judge issued on September 7, condemned 75 people to death and another 600 to prison terms of varying lengths, including 47 life sentences. The mass trial related to a weeks-long protest in Cairo’s Rabaa Square over the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood stalwart and former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013. The charges against the 739 defendants ranged from property damage to murder.
The protest was forcefully dispersed by security forces and more than 800 people died in the violence. Thousands of people were arrested in the aftermath.
The defendants in the mass trial included prominent Islamist leaders and journalists, including Shawkan, whose case had become a cause célèbre. Shawkan, a photojournalist whose real name is Mahmoud Abu Zeid, was photographing the clashes at Rabaa when he was swept up in a dragnet of arrests. He has been in prison ever since, accused of “murder and membership in a terrorist organization”, charges that carried the death penalty.
Press freedom organisations and human rights NGOs have called continuously for Shawkan’s release since his arrest. In April, Reporters Without Borders launched a #MyPicForShawkan campaign to bring attention to his case. Activists were particularly worried about his health, which deteriorated while he was in custody. He suffers from Hepatitis C, which was left untreated while he was in prison, and was anaemic.
Earlier this year Shawkan was awarded UNESCO’s World Freedom Prize.
Shawkan was found guilty of the charges against him on Saturday and given a five-year sentence, which will be commuted to time served as he has been in prison since 2013. But his ordeal is still far from over. For the next five years he will be subject to “police observation”, meaning he must report to the police station every evening at sunset and spend the night there.
PEN America called Shawkan’s conviction “an absurd injustice” and the ongoing police observation an “unwarranted infringement on his rights that should be immediately reversed”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the verdict. “We are relieved that Shawkan, whose only ‘crime’ was taking pictures, can finally walk out of prison, but he will not be fully free,” said Sherif Mansour, program coordinator for CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa. “His treatment, and that of scores of other journalists under Egypt’s totally discredited judicial system, is a stain on Egypt.”
Bachelet used her first speech at OHCHR to highlight human rights violations in several countries, including Egypt. “I am shocked by Saturday's death sentences for 75 people, following another mass trial which failed to comply with international standards regarding due process guarantees,” she said in the speech. “The trial of these protestors contrasts sharply with a recent law that bestows immunity on senior members of the security forces for human rights violations which they may have committed.”
Bachelet had already reacted to the verdict, saying on Sunday that it would be an “irreversible miscarriage of justice” if the death sentences were carried out. The masse trial did not permit individuals to have their own representation or to mount a defence, Bachelet said, adding that the prosecution didn’t provide sufficient evidence to prove individual guilt. She called on the court to overturn the death sentences.
Saturday’s verdicts came at the end of one of many mass trials that have taken place in Egypt since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected in 2014. Rights activists there say they are in the midst of the worst crackdown in their history. The mildest forms of dissent can land a person in prison. The media has been muzzled and the assets of NGOs and those of their staff frozen. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested, many of whom are held without charge. More than 30 journalists are currently in prison in Egypt, which is ranked 161st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
Foreigners are not immune from the repression, either. Moustafa Kassem, a 53-year-old New York City taxi driver, was a defendant in the mass trial and was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Saturday. Kassem, a US citizen who is diabetic and has a heart condition, had been in Egypt visiting his wife and children and was arrested at a traffic checkpoint. His lawyer said that he has been denied access to regular medical treatment, including insulin.
In July, a Lebanese tourist named Mona el-Mazbouh was sentenced to eight years in prison for posting a video on Facebook, which went viral, in which she complained about sexual harassment in Egypt. Harassment is endemic in Egypt, and in 2016 a report by the Thompson Reuters Foundation found that Cairo is the world’s most dangerous megacity for women. Last weekend the court reduced her sentence to one year and suspended it. She is expected to be released today and deported on Wednesday.
This summer the UK issued a travel warning for tourists in Egypt, cautioning that they could go to prison for criticising the government.