August 10, 2019

Reuters has published a special report in both Arabic and English on random executions which includes testimonies from families of the victims.

The agency began its report with a story about the young construction worker Lotfi Ibrahim, who was arrested by security forces as he was leaving the mosque near his home in the city of Kafr el-Sheikh in spring 2015. When his family was able to see him after nearly three months he was in prison and traces of brutal torture were visible on him. His mother said, “He rolled his sleeves down so we couldn’t see the marks of torture. But I saw burns on his arm.” She added: “his face was pale and his hair was shaved off.” 

Ibrahim, who was then 20, ended up on trial for killing three military college students in a roadside bombing. Ibrahim swore he was innocent and his family said that his lawyer had proof – the confessions of the true bombers. However, authorities arrested his lawyer and ignored the new evidence.

In early 2016, nearly a year after Ibrahim’s arrest, he was convicted by a military court and sentenced to death. He wrote a letter from his prison cell to his family in which he addressed the father of one of the military college students who was killed. Ibrahim wrote in his letter, “I don’t have your son’s blood on my hands and everyone knows that. Please pray for me, I forgive you.”

His mother said that when he finished writing the letter and put the pen down he was taken to the death chamber where he was hanged in January 2018, a few months after his lawyer was arrested.

The agency confirmed the execution of at least 179 people between 2014 and May 2019, compared to 10 people in the last six years.

“Egyptian courts have sentenced more than 3,000 people to death since 2014, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power,” said the report, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). “Most sentences are overturned at appeal.”

Reuters interviewed the families of seven young men who have been executed or are awaiting execution. Ibrahim’s parents said that their son did not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood although his father is a member of the group.

Each of these families said that their son had been tortured to force him to confess and was denied access to a lawyer. For weeks or months these families had known nothing about the whereabouts of the young men.

Mohamed Zare, a human rights activist and director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the authorities feel that they “must present something to public opinion. They have to show bodies. It doesn’t matter if they did it or not.”

Ibrahim and three other young men were executed for the bomb attack that killed the military college students four days after gunmen from the Islamic State attacked a church and a Christian-owned shop in Cairo, killing at least 11 people.

Al-Sisi was speaking at the funeral of Attorney General Hisham Barakat, who was assassinated in a car bomb, for which the authorities blamed the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

In 2016 the government said that 14 members of the Muslim Brotherhood had admitted to carrying out the assassination. The group, which insists it is peaceful, denied any role in the assassination of the Attorney General.

Mona Seif, who co-founded No to Military Trials for Civilians, said that the trend for issuing death sentences begun before the Attorney General’s death but escalated after the assassination. By the end of 2016, executions were carried out almost every month. Mona Seif said that this was the way authorities instilled fear into people’s souls: “There are no repercussions for whatever the authorities do internally or internationally, so why not?” 

In 2017 another set of amendments granted the courts the authority to reject all or some defence witnesses and opportunities for the defence to appeal judgments were restricted. The International Court of Justice said that these changes “pave the way for death sentences and mass executions.”

In recent years, dozens of judges were forced into retirement, transferred from criminal courts, and some even brought to trial. In April the constitution was amended to give al-Sisi new powers to appoint judges and the Attorney General.

“Al-Sisi’s way of dealing with the justice system reminds me of the godfather pulling the strings,” said activist Mohammed Zaree.

Torture, disappearance and execution

Egypt’s forensic authority provided evidence of the torture of another defendant, Essam Atta, to the court, but this evidence did not benefit him.

On the day he surrendered himself to the police for questioning over the shooting of a policeman his father, Mohammed, went to the police station with some food.

Essam was a fourth year student of graphic design at the University of Ismailia, and Essam told his family that he had not committed any crime. His father was confident he would return home quickly and asked him to surrender himself.

But the police sent Muhammad back. He tried again the next day. Mohammed says the officials there kept denying that he was being held inside, and denied their knowledge of where he was. However, he confirms that he had heard his son’s voice screaming inside the building. He adds: “I was shattered. I couldn’t bear it.”

A few days later Atta and six other men appeared on a pro-government TV channel with bruises. He appeared to be weakened and he admitted his role in the killing of the policeman. The families saw the six men on television but did not know where they were being held.

A report prepared by the forensic department for the judge examining the case, which was seen by Reuters, concluded that it was “technically possible” they were “assaulted using a wooden stick, bamboo, electric taser and some were burned with cigarettes.” 

The report, which has never been published before, said that they appeared to have been held in handcuffs for a long time.

Hazem Mohammed Salah, who was tried in the same case, is awaiting execution in al-Abadiyya Prison in Damanhour. He told his family that he was tortured for several days and then transferred to the prosecutor’s office.

His sister Dina said the prosecutor asked him to sit down and offered him a glass of hibiscus and asked him to sign the confession without asking him a single question. Hazem drank the hibiscus and signed quietly. Lawyer Shibl Abu al-Mahasen who was a member of the defence team in the case, confirmed this story. 

Six years later Essam, who is now in his early twenties, is awaiting execution. He was sentenced in 2017 and the sentence was upheld in November 2018. An Amnesty International researcher says that 61 men are awaiting execution, mostly political prisoners. Atta’s family says he was forced to sign the confessions and that his interrogation took place without a lawyer.