In Egypt a cry of outrage is met with death

RUTH POLLARD
Last updated 16:15 31/03/2014

Human rights advocates and student protesters condemn death penalties handed out by an Egyptian court to more than 500 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Michaela Cabrera reports.

Morsi protest
Reuters
CLASHES: A student who supports the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi throws back a tear gas canister earlier launched by riot police.
Morsi protests
Reuters
BACK AND FORTH: A riot policeman throws a tear gas canister which was thrown back by protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during clashes along Qasr Al Nil bridge in Cairo.
Morsi
Reuters
OUSTED: Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi speaks to the nation after signing Egypt's new constitution in December 2012. He is now on trial on charges that could lead to the death penalty.
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AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / Reuters
Student who support the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Mursi shout slogans near a bonfire in front of riot police in Cairo last week.

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No 309 on a list of 529 people condemned to die - a lawyer jailed alongside the people he had spent months trying to help, caught up in the relentless crackdown against anyone who dares to challenge Egypt's military-backed government.

But as a son of the town of Matai in Egypt's Nile Delta, 36-year-old Ahmed Eid Ahmed Telb is not alone in this fate. In this modest municipality of 50,000 residents, the extraordinary mass conviction means approximately one in every 100 citizens of Matai was sentenced to death last Monday.

The presiding judge allowed just two short sessions of 30 minutes and one hour to hear the case in which no evidence was presented, many of the defendants were tried in absentia and many defence lawyers were prevented from attending the trial.

About 220 kilometres south of Cairo, Matai has a small town feel. Fresh fruit and vegetables are on  display at the  markets, its main street  bustles with schoolchildren, shoppers and pedestrians, and elaborately decorated tuk-tuks jostle for business with minivans, cars and buses.

But for a time last year - six weeks after the military forced the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohammed Morsi from power and security police used lethal force to disperse huge sit-ins - the Minya governorate in which Matai sits was the scene of some of the country's worst violence.

Minya is home to one of Egypt's largest Coptic Christian populations. It also has a significant community of Brotherhood supporters who were furious that Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, had been overthrown. 

More than 1000 of those protesting for Morsi's reinstatement were killed when security forces cleared the  Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda protests in Cairo.

In an angry response, Morsi supporters ransacked several police stations and destroyed  churches in Minya, accusing the country's Christian minority of supporting the military-led takeover.

The 529 who have been sentenced to death are alleged to have attacked the police station of Matai on August 14, where they are accused of killing the deputy head of the station, Colonel Mustafa Ragab, as well as attempting to murder two other officers.

There is no doubt the attack on the Matai station occurred and that the deputy police chief was killed, but there are serious doubts as to whether the 529 people charged were even present during the incident, legal representatives and families say.

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Lawyer Ahmed Telb denies being anywhere near the police station that day and has repeatedly told police his only involvement was to later represent those charged with crimes related to the attack,  his wife Maha Sayed, a teacher, told Fairfax Media.

As we sit in her family's lounge room, where a picture of the couple's wedding hangs near portraits of their two children - a son, 5, and daughter, 7 - the fear  is palpable. The  lawyer had spent many months working on the cases of those caught up in the months of protests and the violent crackdown that followed, his 32-year-old wife says. Then suddenly Telb himself - the lone Muslim working in a Coptic Christian law firm - came under the gaze of the security services.

They were shocked, she says. No one from the family is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and they are not members of any political party. ''He was just doing as any lawyer would do and representing any client who needs his help,'' she says.

But at 2am on January 22  in a terrifying raid, 40 police officers woke the family and tore their home apart searching for incriminating evidence. They left empty-handed, she says, but two days later they called again when her husband was on his way back from a court appearance in a nearby town.

Still believing that sanity would prevail, he  arranged to go to the police station to talk. It was the last his family saw of him, apart from a brief prison visit a month ago. They now spend their days working tirelessly with colleagues from his law firm to get him released.

On Monday friends called with the awful news that Telb's name was on the list of 529 who were sentenced to death. ''Everyone's heart is breaking,'' his father, Abu Ahmad says. ''We ask ourselves, how can 529 people kill one person? It does not make sense.

''One minute he is representing clients, the next he is in jail and sentenced to death.''

The case itself has become a point of friction in a community that has already endured waves of violence and reprisals. ''Now, if somebody has a problem with you, they will go to the police and say you were involved in the attack on the police station,'' he says.

''Everyone is scared they will be arrested - no one is discussing it on the street but behind closed doors it is all that families can talk about.''

News of the mass death sentence broke as Egypt's dwindling contingent of international media were sitting in a huge, dusty courtroom inside Cairo's Tora Prison complex, looking  into the  wire cage in which three Al-Jazeera  colleagues were being held.

Facing charges of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to broadcast news that falsely portrayed Egypt as being in a state of ''civil war'', Australian journalist Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed have been in jail since their arrest on December 29.

All  deny the charges and say they were just doing their job by giving voice to all sides of Egypt's complex, messy political scene.

Gripping the wire cage and shouting to be heard, they protested that the prosecution had not presented a shred of evidence to prove the charges. Their words were in vain; the judge refused  bail.

The Al-Jazeera journalists, along with the 529 sentenced to death, are just some of the better known of the more than 16,000 people who have been arrested since Egypt's military-backed government came to power on July 3.

Surfing on a wave of popularity that has only grown since it overthrew Mohammed Morsi, the government has expanded its campaign of arrests and detention from Brotherhood members and their supporters to secular protesters, leaders of the January 25 revolution, atheists, students, trade unionists, academics and journalists.

While the death sentences have attracted international condemnation, some Minya locals expressed support for the court's decision, saying they have been terrorised by Brotherhood supporters since Morsi was forced from power. And the decision has been hailed by much of Egypt's national media, who now act as  advocates for the government's sweeping crackdown against protesters.

''Let them be 10,000, 20,000 [sentenced to death], not 500,'' presenter Ahmed Moussa said on the private Sada al-Balad TV.

The mass death sentence handed down in Minya kicked off a new wave of protests in universities - one student was killed in the subsequent police crackdown on Wednesday (local time) and countless others injured and arrested.

This week will bring yet more demonstrations, and in turn police and security forces will fire more tear-gas and rubber bullets into crowds of young people as the April 28 deadline for the court's decision to be confirmed draws closer. In Minya another mass trial of 683 people, including the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader Mohamed Badie, began before the same judge on Tuesday.

Lawyers boycotted the hearing, saying there was little hope for justice in the current judicial climate. Adel Ali, a lawyer who is representing defendants in both Minya cases, says the legal team withdrew  on Tuesday because the judge had begun to ''threaten and terrorise'' the lawyers.

''We cannot generalise about Egypt's justice system as a whole,'' he says, ''But we have a case in front of us now where they are not acting within the law - they are not hearing evidence, they are not allowing witnesses to be cross-examined, they are not hearing the defence.''

It is a cycle that shows no sign of easing. Indeed, recent research suggests Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses of their recent history since the military-backed government took power.

''Estimates suggest that more than 2500 Egyptians have been killed, more than 17,000 have been wounded, and more than 16,000 have been arrested in demonstrations and clashes since July 3,'' Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last Monday.

Another several hundred, including many police officers and soldiers, have been killed in terrorist attacks the government appears powerless to stop. ''These numbers exceed those seen even in Egypt's darkest periods since the 1952 military-led revolution that would bring Gamal Abdel Nasser to power,'' they write. ''They reflect a use of violence that is unprecedented in Egypt's modern political history.''

Just as it is difficult to know the true number of those arrested and jailed during the past few months in Egypt, it is also impossible to tell how many people are on death row at any one time or how many have been executed, says criminal justice researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Karim Ennarah.

 ''The death penalty in Egypt has never really been used extensively against oppositions or Islamist oppositions, which is why this sentence, in this context, is outrageous,'' Ennarah said.

Most experts agreed the Minya death sentences were likely to be overturned or reduced, yet all pointed to the degree to which Egypt's once respected judiciary had stepped outside the accepted boundaries of the legal system in its pursuit of the Brotherhood.

By Wednesday night, cutting through Egypt's deep and growing divisions, pushing aside the years-long economic crisis, military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, 59,  offered himself up as Egypt's saviour.

The man who led the military takeover of Egypt's elected government sought to complete the circle, announcing he had resigned as the chief of defence and was running for president.

With almost the entire Brotherhood leadership in jail and Morsi himself facing charges that could lead to the death penalty, there is little standing in Sisi's way as he powers towards the top job.

But after nine months of  upheaval of a seemingly never-ending revolution, it will take more than the iron fist of the military to mend Egypt's deepening fault lines.

For Ahmed Eid Ahmed Telb, the lawyer now facing a death sentence, and the 16,000 others trapped in prison, there is little comfort on the horizon - just overcrowded jail cells, a failing judicial system and a government hell-bent on revenge.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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