Prison brutality and unjustifiable convictions is a worldwide problem affecting the criminal justice system and the structural functioning of society. Apparently, Nigeria police task force isn't the only ones in need of reformation.
Security forces detained Lotfy Ibrahim, a young construction worker, as he left a mosque near his home on the Nile Delta in the spring of 2015. When his family finally saw him again nearly three months later, he was in jail, looking badly brutalized.
“He rolled his sleeves down so we couldn’t see the signs of torture,” said Ibrahim’s mother, Tahany. “But I saw burns on his arm. His face was pale, and his hair was shaved off.”
Ibrahim, then 20, was eventually tried on charges of murdering three military academy students in a roadside bombing. He swore his innocence. His family said his lawyer had proof in the shape of a confession by the real perpetrators. But the lawyer was arrested and the new evidence was ignored by the authorities, the family said. Reuters didn’t see the confession.
In early 2016, almost a year after Ibrahim’s arrest, a military court found him guilty and sentenced him to death. From his prison cell, he wrote a letter to his family. It contained a message to the father of one of the murdered cadets.
“I don’t have your son’s blood on my hands and everyone knows that,” Ibrahim said. “Please pray for me, I forgive you.” When he put down his pen he was led away to the gallows, Ibrahim’s mother said. He was hanged on January 2018, a few months after his lawyer’s arrest.
Egyptian courts have sentenced some 3,000 people to death since 2014, when President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took power, according to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, an independent organization that documents human rights violations in the Middle East and North Africa. That compares with fewer than 800 death sentences in the previous six years, according to Amnesty International.
Most sentences are overturned at appeal and statistics on the number of executions carried out are hard to come by. Egypt doesn’t publish official figures; newspapers and local media outlets close to the government are the most detailed source of information. Reuters reviewed media reports over a period of 10 years and interviewed Egyptian and international human rights researchers. Amnesty International shared its data. This reporting showed that at least 179 people were executed from 2014 to May 2019, up from 10 people in the previous six years.
There was also an increase in the number of civilians tried in military courts and the number of death sentences handed down by military judges. At least 33 civilians were executed following trials in military courts from 2015, Reuters reporting shows. That compares with none from 2008 to 2014.
Crimes for which capital punishment is being meted out have included forming a terrorist group, use of explosives and rape.
The deadly punishments are part of a wider crackdown against Islamists by the government of Sisi, a former general. Sisi became president in 2014, a year after the military ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has since been banned and its members drove underground.
“Those numbers are unprecedented,” said Gamal Eid, founder, and director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information. “This is political revenge.”
The Egyptian government did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters for this article.
Egypt has consistently said it is fighting terrorism. In February, Sisi told visiting European Union leaders that the Middle East and Europe had “two different cultures.” When terrorists kill, the victims’ families want blood, “and that right must be given through the law.”
“The priority in Europe is achieving and maintaining well-being for its people. Our priority is preserving our countries and stopping them from collapse, destruction, and ruin,” he said.
Reuters spoke to the families of seven young men who have been executed or are on death row. Ibrahim’s parents said their son didn’t belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, although his father is a member. Each family said the accused was tortured and denied access to a lawyer. For weeks or months, relatives had no idea where the men were being held. Human rights groups say many executions were carried out after flawed trials. Egyptian authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
Some executions have taken place after an attack by Islamist militants. The timings of those executions “suggest a troubling trend on the part of the government in which executions appear to be tools of revenge following terrorist attacks rather than a part of an orderly criminal justice system,” said Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Mohamed Zaree, a human rights activist and a director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, a non-governmental organization that produces analysis and research, said the authorities feel “they have to present something to public opinion. They have to show bodies. It doesn’t matter if they did it or not.”
Ibrahim and three other young men convicted of the roadside bombing were hanged four days after Islamic State gunmen attacked a church and a Christian store in Cairo, killing at least 11 people.