On May 19, the Egyptian Court of Administrative Judiciary was scheduled to look into a lawsuit that demands annulling the death sentence handed to six young men on charges of carrying out terrorist attacks in the case known as Arab Sharkas. On May 17, the same six were executed by the Military Court, which issued the initial sentence.
The heated debates following the executions were different from others commonly associated with this type of trial, such as how politicized the verdict might be, the culpability of the defendants, or the referral of civilians to military courts. The controversy revolved around what was specifically unique about this case: the speed with which the executions were carried out, and the reasons for not waiting for the result of the lawsuit contesting the verdict.
Lawyer Fatma Serag sees the lawsuit filed with the administrative judiciary as “the only available window for appealing the Military Court’s verdict and putting the death sentence on hold.” Serag said the decision to execute the defendants broke all the rules that have always been observed in such cases.
“There’s always a long time, usually years, separating the issuance and implementation of a death sentence, even when the verdict is final,” she said. “The Prisons’ Authority does that in order to give the chance for new evidence to emerge, and which may lead to postponing or annulling the verdict. Why was this verdict in particular carried out that quickly?”
Mohamed Adel, head of the Litigation Unit at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Political Rights, said he had the answer to Serag’s question. “The execution was carried out two days before the hearing of the other lawsuit to close any door to a verdict that might postpone the execution,” Adel said. He added that even when a death sentence becomes final, it has to take a turn on death row, which means it waits until earlier death sentences are carried out.
“This usually takes at least six months. In this case, only two months had passed since the verdict became final,” he said, referring to the Military Court’s rejection of the appeal in March. Adel said the defendants were deprived of their legal rights when they were executed that fast. “According to the law, families of the defendants have to be notified of the time of the execution, and defendants should be allowed final visits.”
Mahmoud Salmani, a member of the movement “No to the Military Trial of Civilians,” saw the execution as an indication of the main problem inherent in the idea of military judiciary, since its very presence violates the principle of the separation of powers.
“Judges in the Military Court are appointed by the head of the Military Judiciary Authority. This authority reports to the minister of defense who, in turn, is affiliated to the executive power,” he said. “This means that the military judiciary isn’t independent.”
A Human Rights Watch report voiced the same concern and demanded, weeks before the execution, that the defendants be retried before a civilian court. “Egypt’s military courts, whose judges are serving military officers, are neither independent nor impartial, but in October 2014 President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi increased their powers to try civilians by expanding their jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on state or public property,” said the report.
Criminal sciences expert General Refaat Abdel Hamid said in the case of defendants facing trial before two courts, the court that issues the first sentence has the right to carry it out. “This applies to the death penalty and to cases where one court is civilian and the other military,” he said. “In case of execution, the second pending trial is automatically dropped.”
Ahmed Helmi, a member of the defendants’ defense team, agreed with Abdel Hamid. “Filing a lawsuit against the verdict doesn’t oblige the Prisons Authority to postpone carrying out this verdict,” he said. “When the Military Court rejected the appeal, the verdict became enforceable and filing a lawsuit with an administrative court wouldn’t stop it. The only exception would be if the administrative court accepts the case.”
Professor of criminal law Mahmoud Kobeish blamed the administrative judiciary for not treating the matter with more urgency. “The administrative court should’ve set an earlier date for looking into the case to guarantee that the execution could be put on hold,” he said.
Analysts who supported the execution of the verdict expressed their concern over the reaction of the militant group to which the defendants reportedly belong, namely Ansar Beit al-Maqdes. “The group will do its best to prove its existence, and to convince Egyptians and the international community that the verdict was politicized,” said political writer Gamal Asaad.
“That’s why the Ministry of Interior declared a state of emergency right after the executions were carried out.” Asaad also expected that several countries and human rights organizations that have opposed the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood would condemn the executions.
Professor of political science Tarek Fahmy said the revenge of militants has become more immediate than expected. “This was made very clear when three judges were assassinated in Sinai on the same day [former President Mohammed] Mursi and several Brotherhood leaders received a death sentence.”
The link between the executions and the killing of the judges took the controversy to a different level, as it was debated whether the decision to hasten the execution was aimed at avenging the judges. Hesham al-Mayani said what was more serious than whether the executions were fair is for the state to become party to a feud with militants and to allow this to impact its decisions.
“It is obvious that members of the Arab Sharkas cell were not scheduled to be executed on that day, especially that the state had enough on its plate with the strong reactions the latest death sentences against Mursi and Brotherhood members brought about on both the domestic and international levels,” he wrote. “This changed when the judges were killed.”
Mayani said he did not object to the verdict but rather to the timing, since it demonstrated that militants have succeeded in dragging the state into a cycle of revenge. “We will be fooling ourselves if we believe that the judges are now avenged because all what the state did was punishing terrorists it already had under its control for a crime committed by other terrorists,” he said. “Punishment for each crime should target those who committed this crime. We cannot assume that punishing another criminal would stop the criminals who are still at large.”
Security experts, however, see fast executions as the way to speed up the elimination of terrorist cells. “It’s important to get rid of members of those cells as fast as possible so that Egypt can regain its security,” said strategic expert General Hamdi Bekheet. “Executions should be accompanied by a series of clampdowns on those terrorists in their strongholds.”
Military expert General Talaat Mussallam disagreed with speculation about an increase in terrorist operations following the execution: “Militants strike whenever they get the chance, regardless of death sentences their fellow-militants receive.”
For Mussallam, the assassination of the judges illustrates the growing danger of militant groups, and which necessitates their immediate elimination. “Militants were targeting army and police officers; now they’ve added judges.”