Egypt's Dar al-Ifta (photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Egypt: A Call for a Halt to Mass Executions

11/01/2018 . By Tarek Hussein

This article was translated from Arabic to English. Read the original version here.


In January and February 2018, the United Nations and the European Parliament issued new statements calling for the Egyptian government to halt the imminent mass execution of 26 people. The statements alleged that due process and fair trial guarantees did not appear to have been followed.

According to human rights reports, the Egyptian courts have handed down more sentences of execution since July 3, 2013, following the ousting of President Muhammad Morsi. Minya Criminal Court has referred 683 defendants to the Grand Mufti of Egypt for an opinion before executions can take place. The defendants were convicted of attacking al-Adwa police station. The decision was handed down after only two hearings, in which death sentences were confirmed for 183 people.

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the decision, describing the mass imposition of the death penalty “as a breach of international human rights law.” According to the Amnesty International report “The Death Penalty in 2017: Facts and Figures,” the majority of confirmed death sentences across the Middle East and North Africa were imposed in Egypt, with 402 people sentenced to death in various cases.

Between July 2013 and January 2018, over 3,000 people received preliminary death sentences in 65 criminal cases tried in both civilian and military courts. In September 2018, Cairo Criminal Court sentenced 75 former Muslim Brotherhood members to death over a sit-in dispersal at Raba’a al-Adaweya Square. The defendants were accused of many crimes, including murder, incitement to violence, blocking roads and restricting movement, and organizing illegal protests. The U.N. urged the Egyptian authorities to reconsider the death penalties delivered by criminal courts to dozens of defendants, including Islamist leaders affiliated with the Brotherhood, in the case that the media referred to as the Raba’a sit-in dispersal case. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet described the trial as “unfair.”

The Death Penalty in History

The death penalty is the oldest form of punishment in the history of civilization. It can be described as a government-sanctioned practice whereby a person is killed by the state for retribution, or deterrence and prevention. Capital punishment has long been used in western countries. During the Enlightenment era, calls for the abolition of the death penalty emerged, as it conflicts with the right to life and the importance of man in society and civilization. In the 20th century, this approach was reinforced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted in 1984. The UDHR states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Nevertheless, great empires such as France and Britain only abolished the death penalty in the 1980s.

In the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the use of the death penalty sharply declined worldwide. In 2014, only 22 of the 97 countries whose laws permit the death penalty actually carried out executions. In 2007, the U.N. General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. In a series of four resolutions, adopted in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012, the General Assembly urged states to respect international standards that protect the rights of those facing the death penalty, to gradually restrict its use, and reduce the number of offenses that are punishable by death. More than 160 U.N. member states have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it, yet prisoners in a number of countries continue to face execution.

International Recommendations on the Death Penalty

The international community has given due attention to the death penalty. Those who follow the global attitude to the death penalty will find that the world is moving away from this punishment. This trend is well embodied in accords and regional or international conventions that aim to abolish the death penalty in states which are signatories to such conventions.

Obviously, the countries abolishing death sentences are on the rise. According to Amnesty International, about 89 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes; 10 countries have abolished the death penalty for all except military crimes. In addition, there are 30 countries that have abolished the death penalty in practice, as these penalties are still stipulated in their penal laws and handed down by courts but are not applied. This brings the total number of countries abolishing the death penalty in law or practice to 129. More than 40 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes since 1990. In the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 6 states: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Some recommendations are made to the countries still retaining and using the death penalty. In Africa, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights urged African states to abide by a prohibition of the arbitrary use of capital punishment. The resolution was adopted at its 44th Ordinary Session, held in Abuja, Nigeria.

Alternatives to the Death Penalty

The question now is why is there no call to abolish or halt death sentences until a community dialogue is held, since the death penalty is the only punishment that cannot be overturned even if new evidence is found. Moreover, the death penalty is a violation of the most important right of human beings: the right to life, which has been enshrined in all international covenants, such as Article 6 of the ICCPR.

Alternatives can be found in long-term or “life imprisonment” sentences, for which the penalty could be revoked should new evidence be found. The alternative punishment will give offenders an opportunity for prison-based rehabilitation. Rehabilitation should be monitored to allow the reintegration of offenders into society.

Will the imposition of death penalties deter crimes or terrorist acts? Is expanding the use of the death penalty useful? Capital punishment will not prevent crimes. Research has shown that crime rates have not risen in the countries that abolished the death penalty. On the contrary, crime rates have rather decreased in some countries—e.g., Canada, where the murder rate was lower in 2008 than in 1976. Undoubtedly, expanding the use of the death penalty shakes confidence in the justice system. According to recent human rights reports, fair trial standards are not met in many cases. Security forces also used torture against suspects to coerce confessions. On the other hand, the death sentences imposed by courts have fomented the hatred of defendants’ families against the state. In an official statement, President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi said some innocent people are in prison, so some of those who were sentenced to death might have been innocent.

I conclude with an interview I conducted with a death row inmate who was acquitted after initially being sentenced to death in 2013. He said, “The most difficult moment in my life was the one when I was given the death sentence. I still remember the day when I was put on death row; this comprises narrow cells that neither allow for the proper circulation of air nor allow sunlight to enter. I also remember the red jumpsuit, wandering alone, and the visiting room where I was brought shackled and handcuffed. I have not yet recovered from the psychological impact of the harsh conditions of death row, with the ever-present shadow of execution that hung over me. I still remember the echoing voice of my fellow inmates who were sentenced to death. My only condolence is that I have since been acquitted. My body has been released, but unfortunately my soul is still in solitary confinement.”