Helwan Brigades case: Mass trials and ceaseless death sentences in Egypt

An Egyptian court sentenced ten defendants to death by hanging on charges of forming armed groups in the trial known in the media as Helwan Brigades, which is one of the longest trials in the history of the Egyptian judiciary, lasting for more than eight years, and also one of the most extensive mass trials, involving 215 defendants.

Over the past eight years, defendants have suffered gross violations, including enforced disappearance, torture, and medical negligence in prisons, as well as prolonged pretrial detention and unfair trial procedures before a politicized emergency court.

Helwan Brigades?

In August 2014, a video showing a group of masked people carrying firearms, estimated at 17 people, was released on social media. One of the group members talked in the video and called the group Helwan Brigades explaining the purpose and motives of forming the armed group with being tired of the peaceful attitude of The Muslim Brotherhood. The man in the video said the purpose of hunting arms is to respond to police and army abuses against opponents in Egyptian prisons, especially women detainees, and in response to the police and army’s use of violence against demonstrators in the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya and Annahda sit-ins. He added that pacifism is no longer suitable for dealing with the police and threatened the Interior Ministry to target headquarters south of Cairo.

Two weeks later, the Ministry of the Interior said in an official statement that the National Security Agency managed to identify the elements in the video and arrested eight of them. Later, dozens of arrests followed, and all the arrested were inserted in Case 451 of 2014 Supreme State Security, known in the media as the Helwan Brigades case.

In February 2015, the later Attorney General Hisham Barakat referred all 215 defendants, including 13 children, to an urgent trial, charging them with establishing an illegal group purposing to disturb public peace and joining and leading it between August 14, 2013, and February 7, 2015. The prosecution also accused some of the defendants of attempted murder, possession of firearms, and promoting the ideas of a terrorist group.

The trial sessions began in August 2015, moving from one justice to another as four judges assumed. Taking seven years in the courts, some lawyers classified it as the most extended trial Egypt had ever witnessed. A few days ago, the terrorism court, an exceptional subsidiary of the criminal court headed by Counselor Mohamed Sherine Fahmy, sentenced ten defendants to death by hanging, 56 defendants to life imprisonment, 53 others to 15 years imprisonment, 34 defendants to 10 years imprisonment, and one to 10 years imprisonment while 43 were acquitted.

Egregious violations

“I spent 24 hours in Lazoghli, the headquarters of the National Security Agency, blindfolded and handcuffed. On the first day, I was completely stripped of my clothes and assaulted with beatings, insults and electric shocks in sensitive parts of my body.”

Osama El-Sayed Mohamed Hakim, the defendant in the Helwan Brigades case “I’m denying all the statements I said before, in whole and detail, because they came out of me after torturing by the State Security officers and the officers of Helwan Police Station. They threatened that if I said this before the prosecution, they would torture me and sexually assault my wife and mother.”

Magdy Mohamed Ibrahim, a defendant in the Helwan Brigades case Forty-six defendants in the case complained of being subjected to enforced disappearance at the headquarters of the National Security after their arrest, and the periods of disappearance ranged between two and 56 days. This violation challenges the validity and integrity of the legal procedures that followed the arrest, as the procedural law stipulates that the defendant must be brought before the Public Prosecution within 24 hours of his arrest. The Public Prosecution refused to investigate those allegations of enforced disappearance and was contented with confirming the National Security reports.

Thirty defendants complained of being tortured by beating, electric shocks, threats to harm families and hanging their bodies in unbearable postures. The prosecution did not conduct any serious investigations into the matter despite signs of torture on some of the defendants, which is an explicit and severe violation. Nine defendants died during the trial. According to the Egyptian Network for Human Rights documentation, the causes of death varied from shooting by police in claimed chases, death by medical negligence inside prison, and Covid19 in addition to natural death. Among the deceased is Emad Hassan Ali, who died in the notorious Scorpion prison after suffering from stomach cancer without receiving the necessary health care.

The defendants suffered unfair trial procedures before a politicized court. The Terrorism court was established by government order in December 2013 to assume terrorism trials. Certain justices known for their bias toward the regime were assigned to consider those courts. According to Human Rights Watch, those courts used to prosecute thousands of Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of late President Morsi in mass trials, often violating due process. The lives of many defendants were lost in prolonged pretrial detention, as dozens of them have been imprisoned since 2014 without a court ruling against them, and 43 defendants were even acquitted because they had nothing to do with the charges. There is no compensation for them for the years of their lives wasted due to fabrications of the police and unfair courts.