Monday, June 19, 2006

Egypt and the death penalty

Brothers Ezzat and Hamdi Ali Hanafi were executed by hanging at 6am local time on 18 June, at the Arab Tower (Borj al-'Arab) Prison in Alexandria, northwest of Cairo.

The two men had been sentenced to death on 25 September 2005 after an unfair trial before the (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court (ESSSC). ESSSCs are exceptional courts created under the state emergency, which has been in force since 1981. Trials before these courts violate basic principles for a fair trial, including the right to appeal before a higher tribunal. Those tried before these courts can only lodge a petition to President Mubarak or his nominee to quash or reduce their sentence. Had Ezzat and Hamdi Ali Hanafi been tried before an ordinary criminal court, both of them would have had the chance to appeal to the Court of Cassation on grounds of procedural irregularity. On a number of occasions the Court of Cassation has ordered retrials for people sentenced to death by criminal courts of first instance. They had been arrested in March 2004 and convicted of using an area of land belonging to the state to grow unspecified ''drugs''; when the security forces raided the property, they allegedly offered armed resistance, and took hostages to use as human shields.

It's hard to talk in America about the death penalty in Egypt. Amnesty International considers the death penalty a human rights violation and opposes it in all circumstances, but some argue that there are better places for AI to focus it's attention. I've had Arabs and Muslims simply laugh at me when we discuss the death penalty. My own state of North Carolina is likely to execute more people than the nation of Egypt will this year. Last year, Egypt went the entire calendar year without an execution, while the United States executed dozens. The U.S. State Department of course doesn't even include mention of the death penalty in its annual human rights report, as it doesn't recognize the death penalty as a human rights violation. In short, one reasonable opinion to take away from all of this is to underscore just simply out of whack the United States is in the number of executions it carries out compared to the rest of the world.

So why bother?

Let me try just one argument out here. The argument is that the death penalty is so closely intertwined with other human rights abuses, that it is impossible to work on human rights and not discuss capital punishment. Let's take torture. It is impossible to oppose the infliction of pain by Egyptian security forces without also addressing the ultimate infliction of pain by the government. It is also impossible to oppose a system that allows information extracted from torture to be used in criminal cases without also opposing the executions that come from those trials. Let's take unfair trials. It is impossible to oppose trials that fail to meet international standards, that limit defendants' right of appeal, that limit access to information for their defense attorneys, that prevent defendants and their attorneys from conducting an adequate defense, it is impossible to oppose all this and not oppose the executions that sometimes come from these trials.

Opposition to the death penalty frequently is confused with defense of the criminals. These Egyptian brothers appear to be serious criminals, although that judgment must be tempered by Amnesty's concerns about the fairness of their trial. All governments have the right, in fact they have the obligation, to prosecute criminals of these sort. But as the experience of many abolitionist countries show, that obligation does not require the death penalty. The existence of the death penalty in these countries -- covered as it is in secrecy, torture, twistings of the judicial system and assault on the powerless -- arises out of human rights abuses, rather than from any central tenet of the judicial system. The Egyptian and American experiences show that if there were no human rights abuses in the system, the system would produce no executions.

For more read about the death penalty in Egypt, click here.


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