Inside Egypt's Shocking Rise In Capital Punishment
While executions were once rare, Egypt has become a global leaders in judicial killings amidst growing secrecy around the legal system.
CAIRO — It was around noon on February 20, 2019 when Mounira* first heard the news. She was at home watching television when a news bulletin flashed on the screen announcing that nine prisoners had been executed that morning at dawn, among them her 27-year-old son Fouad*. A year earlier, the men had been convicted of the 2015 assassination of Public Prosecutor Hesham Barakat and sentenced to death. The sudden announcement struck her like a thunderbolt.
Fouad was arrested in 2015 and tried in a military tribunal (Case 514) about which there is no public information. He was eventually acquitted, yet while in detention, he had been added to the assassination case.
“When he received an acquittal in the first case, I held out some hope that he would come out of the public prosecutor [assassination] case as well. I told myself, ‘these aren’t sham trials, they actually look at the case files,’” Mounira said.
Yet, Fouad’s death sentence was upheld in the courts, and he was executed just three months later. His family had received no prior notice of the impending execution, nor were they granted a final visitation, both of which are required by law.
After overcoming the initial shock, Mounira rushed out of her home in Nasr City and headed to Zeinhom Morgue in Sayeda Zeinab, where she joined the families of Fouad’s co-defendants to wait to receive the bodies. It was hours later, after sunset, that the morgue finally released Fouad’s corpse. Most of the others were gradually released over the following days.
Mounira had not seen her son in a year and a half. She now found herself staring at his lifeless body. “I filled my eyes with him,” she said.
The rise in judicial killings
Fouad was found guilty of the 2015 assassination of Public Prosecutor Hesham Barakat in a car bombing that targeted his convoy in Cairo. In 2017, the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced 28 defendants to death for the assassination, 13 of them in absentia. The Court of Cassation subsequently upheld the death sentences for nine of them, including Fouad, and commuted six others to life imprisonment.
Far from being an isolated incident, the mass execution of Fouad and his co-defendants was only a high profile example of what has become almost common practice in Egypt. Over the last eight years, the number of death sentences and executions in Egypt has skyrocketed, with executions often carried out en masse. In 2020, the number of death sentences carried out tripled to over 130, including those convicted in both terrorism and regular criminal cases. In October 2020 alone, authorities executed 53 people, exceeding the annual total for each of the three preceding years.
A shift from a doctrine of deterrence and prevention to one of political vengeance.
And the trend shows no signs of abating. At least 176 executions were carried out between August 2020 and August 2021, according to the latest tally by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF). Egypt now ranks among the countries with the highest numbers of executions worldwide — third according to Amnesty International, or fifth according to Reprieve.
This was not always the case. Over the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak, the number of death sentences and executions in Egypt were lower by orders of magnitude compared to the current period. Executions had slowed down to such an extent under Mubarak that it could be described as a “practical suspension” of the use of the death penalty, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
After President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office in 2014, the judiciary dramatically expanded the use of the death penalty, handing down death sentences en masse and carrying out far more executions. Multiple sources who spoke to Mada Masr characterized this trend in Egypt’s use of the death penalty as indicative of a shift from a doctrine of deterrence and prevention to one of political vengeance.
Parsing limited data on executions
Authorities do not release any official data on executions, yet according to the limited data available, the number of executions carried out over the past decade amount to nearly half the total final death sentences issued by the Egyptian judiciary over the past century.
According to a 2014 report in Al-Masry Al-Youm, 1,429 final death sentences were handed down between 1906 and 2014. The total number of executions carried out is not available, though we do know that criminal offenses accounted for the vast majority of the sentences — 1,168 — while 182 were for political crimes including assassination, espionage, communication with foreign countries and terrorism as well as founding, joining and leading illegal secret organizations.
While the past decade has seen a massive spike in executions, official statistics remain unavailable. Nevertheless, human rights groups have labored with limited resources to document execution rates in Egypt by keeping tabs on cases in the courts and through reports in the media. This has resulted in significant discrepancies among the tallies of these groups by more than 10 executions in some years. The figures included in this report are based on data accumulated by several organizations as well as tallies from news reports conducted by Mada Masr.
Between 2011 and December 2021, at least 521 executions were carried out, according to figures reported by EIPR, ECRF figures and Mada Masr research. Reliable data on the number of final death sentences issued over this same period is not available, yet research indicates that the number of sentences handed down between 2017 and the end of December 2021 totals at least 316.
The primary legal framework shaping executions in Egypt is based on the 1937 Penal Code. It establishes two methods of execution: hanging for civilians and firing squad for soldiers.
However, it was the formation of terrorism circuit courts in 2013 that laid the groundwork for the rapid expansion in the use of the death penalty in recent years. Amendments to the Penal Code related to terrorism charges soon followed. Approved by the government in 2014, the amendments expanded the legal concept of terrorism and changed the punishment for some terrorism crimes from life imprisonment to the death penalty.
Death sentences for terrorism
A year later, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi demanded that even more be done. “The hand of justice is shackled by laws, and we’re not going to wait,” Sisi said at Barakat’s funeral in June 2015 shortly after his assassination. “We’ll amend laws that will allow us to implement justice as soon as possible.”
Less than two months later, Sisi approved the anti-terrorism law, which included 15 capital crimes. In total, more than 100 crimes are currently punishable by death under Egyptian law, including 35 set forth in the Penal Code, 10 in the anti-drug law and 41 in the Code of Military Justice.
The counterterrorism law also includes vague language that allows for a broader definition of charges that fall under the label of terrorism, according to Emad al-Fiqy, a professor of law at Sadat University, who characterizes the number of charges punishable by death in Egyptian law as “excessive.”
“Included in the law’s definitions of terrorism is everything that affects ‘the security of society.’ But what is society’s security to begin with?” Fiqy told Mada Masr. “There are a thousand things that can affect society’s security, and they do so in varying degrees. Surely they’re not all punishable by death.”
The philosophy behind the death penalty is for it to serve as a punitive measure.
According to Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a former deputy head of the Court of Cassation, the death penalty in Egypt is intended to act as a deterrent. “Within Egyptian law, the philosophy behind the death penalty is for it to serve as a punitive measure that aims to deter and prevent [crime],” Abdel Rahman told Mada Masr. Studies in Egypt and abroad, however, have repeatedly found that the death penalty has no deterrent effect.
Yet even the government’s mindset has changed under the current regime, with the death penalty moving from a supposed tool of deterrence to one of revenge, according to human rights lawyer Ahmed Saad. He pointed to instances when prisoners on death row are promptly executed in response to militant attacks, as an example of how authorities politically exploit the death penalty.
Egypt's Supreme Court in Cairo
A case in point came in May 2015 when three judges were assassinated and a fourth seriously injured on the same day in a series of militant attacks in Arish. The next morning, six death row prisoners were promptly executed, seven months after their sentence in a case in which a number of people were convicted of killing army soldiers in the Qalyubiya village of Arab Sharkas. A researcher in EIPR’s criminal justice unit who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity described the timing of the executions as a politicization of the death penalty.
Authorities have also actively publicized executions for political purposes, as happened in the case of Hesham Ashmawy. A former army officer turned militant, Ashmawy was convicted of masterminding multiple high profile attacks, including one on the Farafra checkpoint near the Libyan border in 2014 that left over 20 soldiers dead. He was sentenced to death and executed in March 2020. Actual footage of Ashmawy’s execution was broadcast two months later in an episode of The Choice, a popular Ramadan television series championing Egypt’s “war on terror” that was produced by Synergy, a company owned by intelligence services. Leaked video clips of the full execution quickly spread on social media soon afterwards, in violation of the law that prohibits filming executions, according to the EIPR researcher.
As the number of executions has rapidly increased in recent years, Egypt has come under heavy criticism from local and international human rights organizations, Western allies, the United Nations and the European Parliament. In 2019, Sisi responded to the criticisms at the first EU-Arab League summit. “We appreciate and respect what you’re saying about the death penalty. But please, do not impose it on us. This is the culture we have,” Sisi said during the summit’s closing press conference. “The people whose children are killed in attacks are the ones who demand their right to retribution.”
While Sisi claims that “retribution” may justify executing those convicted in terrorism cases, that does not explain the massive spike in executions of defendants convicted of regular criminal offenses, such as murder. According to ECRF figures and research of news reports compiled by Mada Masr, there has been a steady rise in the number of death sentences issued in criminal cases, with 591 in 2020 alone, and a total of 144 executions carried out between August 2020 and August 2021. In a single week in June 2021, 16 people sentenced to death for various criminal offenses were executed.
According to the EIPR researcher, the sharp rise in the number of executions in cases unrelated to terrorism reflects a desire by authorities to demonstrate their tight control over the country: “The regime wants to say, ‘we are holding the country in an iron grip.’”
Expediting death sentences
In Egypt, death sentences can be issued by criminal or military courts, and up until the president opted not to renew the years-long state of emergency in October, by emergency state security courts as well.
Under Egyptian law, death sentences can only be carried out after two rounds of litigation at a criminal court, an opinion from the grand mufti and a consensus ruling at the Court of Cassation according to Abdel Rahman. Yet the mufti rarely ever rejects a death penalty ruling, and his opinion is more of a formality than an adjudication. In fact, courts have overturned death sentences even after the mufti’s approval, according to several lawyers and researchers.
In 2017, Sisi issued a decree to amend litigation procedures that ultimately served to expedite the process for death sentences to be finalized.
Once a death penalty verdict is upheld by the Court of Cassation, the justice minister sends a memorandum to the president, who has 14 days to issue a pardon, after which the verdict can be carried out, according to Article 470 of the Criminal Procedure Code. During his nearly eight years in office, Sisi has not pardoned a single death penalty case.
After their verdicts become final, death row prisoners, who don a red uniform, are confined to a solitary cellsolitary cell where they await execution.
A handful of prisons in Egypt are equipped with execution chambers, according to Saad, including the appeals prison in Cairo’s Bab al-Khalq area, Tora Liman Prison, Borg al-Arab Prison, as well as prisons in Minya, Damanhour, Tanta and Wadi al-Natrun. Prisoners on death row who are detained in a prison that is not equipped with an execution chamber are typically transferred to one that does a day before their execution.
A process defined by "cruel irony"
According to the law, executions are carried out at dawn in the presence of a committee composed of a Public Prosecution official, a doctor, the prison warden, a cleric and, if the prisoner requests it, a defense lawyer.
The decision of when to carry out a death sentence is determined by seemingly arbitrary factors, such as the availability of the officials required to attend the execution, according to a human rights lawyer who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, describing the practice as “cruel irony.”
“Coordinating dates for prosecution officials who serve on this committee without prior notice is difficult. Prosecutors specify their availability in advance, and execution dates are set accordingly. That’s why many prisoners are executed on the same day — to save time by not forming several committees,” said a prosecutor who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
The families received no notice and were shocked by the news without having a chance to say goodbye.
According to the EIPR researcher, another reason multiple executions are often carried out on the same day is because of the increasingly large number of prisoners on death row.
By law, death row prisoners have a right to see their families the day before their execution. Yet several lawyers and family members of prisoners who have been executed told Mada Masr they received no notice prior to the executions being carried out and were shocked by the news without having a chance to say goodbye, as was the case with Fouad and his co-defendants. Executions are also sometimes carried out on religious occasions — another violation of the Criminal Procedure Code.
After a death sentence is carried out, a doctor writes down the exact time of death, and the body is transferred in a police vehicle to a morgue, where the family can collect it. In extraordinary circumstances, or major cases such as Barakat’s assassination, authorities release the bodies at night over several days to avoid crowds of families gathering after funeral prayers and the prospect of demonstrations breaking out, according to Saad.
While prisoners on death row can be executed as soon as the ruling is upheld and the 14-day deadline for a presidential pardon expires, it is customary for years to pass before the sentence is carried out. According to judges quoted in the press, the period between the perpetration of the crime and the execution should be between two and seven years, depending on the nature and circumstances of the case. According to Saad, this time lag gives death row prisoners a shot at a retrial if new evidence is brought to light. Other executions are postponed for many years for political or diplomatic reasons, according to Abdel Rahman, the former Court of Cassation vice president.
An irreversible punishment
Yet in recent years, executions appear to be taking place at an accelerated pace, at times only months after the sentence is upheld. In the Arab Sharkas case, the executions took place just seven months after sentencing and were carried out despite the fact that the defendants had successfully filed an appeal before an Egyptian administrative court to overturn the military court verdict.
“The danger of the death penalty is that it is a form of punishment that can never be reversed,” Fiqy told Mada Masr. “A single procedural error can result in killing an innocent person, or someone whose guilt is, at the very least, in question.”
A recent death penalty case that sparked widespread controversy was that of Isaiah al-Makary, a Coptic monk who was convicted of murder and executed in May 2021, just 10 months after his sentence was upheld, marking the first state execution of a Christian clergy member in Egypt’s modern era. United Nations experts, human rights groups, legal analysts and others have all pointed to flaws in the trial proceedings, case evidence, abusive treatment in detention and other aspects of the case that raise serious doubts about the verdict.
Although execution rates have been steadily increasing year over year, Fiqy believes authorities in Egypt may start considering tamping down the practice, pointing to a national human rights strategy that the government launched to much fanfare in September.
Hundreds of prisoners are languishing on death row, waiting for their sentences to be carried out.
The strategy came in the wake of international criticism of Egypt’s human rights record by the United Nations, the European Parliament, as well as key allies such as the United States. The strategy states a need to review the charges to which the death penalty applies and points out technical issues such as the lack of a legal provision obligating the appointment of a lawyer if a death row prisoner is financially unable to secure an attorney. However, the strategy has been met with widespread skepticism, with few advocates expecting any meaningful human rights reform, viewing it instead as merely a public relations campaign.
Nevertheless, since mid-August — one month before the strategy was launched — there has not been a single execution reported in the media, according to a news search by Mada Masr. The EIPR criminal justice researcher also confirmed that they have been unable to find a single report of an execution between August and the end of December.
Nearly four months without a single reported execution is a significant decrease in relation to the past period. Over the past four years, the longest stretch with no reported executions was just two months. According to the EIPR researcher, there are two possible explanations for this shift: either executions have indeed been halted over the past four months as part of a wider strategy to curb the practice, or authorities are preventing the press from reporting on executions in an attempt to limit international criticism.
There is some evidence to suggest that the latter is true and that executions are being carried out without any press coverage. Two family members of death row prisoners, a human rights lawyer and the EIPR researcher all heard separately that nine or 10 prisoners were executed in mid-December at the Wadi al-Natrun Prison Complex after they were transferred there from the Shebin al-Kom General Prison. However, Mada Masr was unable to verify the claims from other sources, nor was there any such coverage in the local press.
Increased secrecy amidst growing criticism
Nonetheless, the lack of transparency around the death penalty in Egypt highlights how authorities approach the practice. What is undoubtedly clear is that hundreds of prisoners are languishing on death row, waiting for their sentences to be carried out.
One of them is Emad al Hady*, an engineer who was convicted and sentenced to three years on torture charges related to the the 2013 Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in (a protest for supporters of President Mohamed Morsi that turned deadly). While serving his sentence, Emad was added to a larger Rabea case in which he was convicted alongside hundreds of others of forming “security committees.” In June, the Court of Cassation upheld death sentences for just 12 of the defendants, Emad among them.
He is currently on death row at Wadi al-Natrun Liman Prison awaiting execution. His wife and two children, Ibrahim* and Ghalia*, are able to visit him periodically.
Ibrahim was just two years old when his father was arrested, and Ghalia was born a few months into his detention. According to Hadi’s wife Hasnaa*, the children’s relationship with their father is limited to letter writing and brief interactions during prison visitations that last no longer than an hour.
The visitations are arduous, involving a lengthy commute, extended queues at the prison and conversations separated by two wire barriers. Despite the stress of the experience, Hasnaa continues with the visitations so the children are able to see their father. “I could have told them that he had died, but I couldn’t sentence my children to not seeing their father in the limited time he has left,” she said.
However, she also has to contend with the reality that Emad could be executed at any moment. So she told the children a half-truth. At first, Hasnaa told her son that his father could not leave work, so they would have to visit him at his “workplace.” But as the years went by and Ibrahim grew older, he was eventually able to read the word “prison” while visiting his father.
Hasnaa eventually decided to explain the situation in terms the children could visually comprehend. “When his prison uniform changed from blue to red, they understood that their dad went from being in a place he can’t leave to someone awaiting death,” she says.
For years, Hasnaa has been trying to adjust to life without her husband after just three years of marriage. As she raises the children alone, she lives in the dread that Emad’s execution could come at any time and without warning.
“I answered your call right away because I’m always waiting to receive news of Emad’s execution.”
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