Burned and destroyed Coptic Christian church in Minya following dispersal of Rabaa Sit in - by Andrey Stenin/RIA Novosti

Why Should Fair Trials for MB Suspects be Important to Egyptian Christians?

05/16/2014 . By Ishak Ibrahim

Many people asking for fair and just trials for members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have faced extensive criticism, including even accusations of supporting terrorism and undermining the state by questioning the conduct of its institutions. This so despite the unnecessarily harsh sentences, the speed at which they have been issuing, and the clear disregard of the rights of the accused in the Minya Criminal Court cases, which last month resulted in confirmed death sentences for 37 people convicted in the first trial linked to Matai police station attack and (preliminary) death sentences for another 683 suspects pending the receipt of the Grand Mufti’s opinion on the case. When I happened to voice criticism of the court proceedings in a casual setting recently, a judge stated: “They [the Muslim Brotherhood] need to be publicly executed without trial. Did you forget what they did to churches and police stations?” While this judge is not involved with either of the Matai cases, his view reflects that of a large segment of Egypt’s judiciary.

Many segments of Egyptian society are supportive of such snap trials of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, including proponents of the former regime, some supporters of the army’s June 2013 intervention, and many Copts. Support for trials like these within the Coptic community is quite strong, and it has been said that Copts gloat in these trials and look to them for a quick annihilation of the Brotherhood. What, one might ask, motivates this community groups to approve of these hasty, unjust trials for Muslim Brotherhood members, even when its members have themselves been the victims of unfair investigations by the prosecution in numerous cases of sectarian violence? Should not fair trials for Muslim Brotherhood members be of paramount importance to Copts? Are not credible trials necessary for those accused of church burning and the attacks on the property of Christians?

The situation cannot be understood without looking back at what the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters did during their single year in power. During the Mubarak era, the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups used taqiyya, a practice founded in Islamic jurisprudence and intended for use only in times of great duress, to appear open to various non-Islamist opposition groups. Generally speaking, taqiyya permits the expression of ideas and opinions that contradict what one truly believes if it is necessary to avoid significant harm. These groups also tried to present minority groups—including Copts—with statements of reassurance that were open to interpretation, such as “what is ours is yours and what we owe, you owe.” However, when the Brotherhood approached the seat of power and the time came for these reassurances to be put in action, the group started showing a very different face. Sectarian rhetoric began to take over its leaders’ speeches, and this shift was accompanied by aggressive acts against Copts, especially those in small towns and urban slums. Islamists also had a direct role in a number of incidents of sectarian violence after the January 25 Revolution, well before they were to come to power. Such incidents include (but are not limited to) joining NDP members in leading protests in Qena to prevent a Christian governor, Major-General Emad Shehata, from taking his post and consequently forcing the government of then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to appoint a different governor. The role of Islamists in the destruction of the church in the Giza village of Sol and the burning of the Virgin Mary Church in Imbaba (as well as their involvement in many other sectarian attacks) cannot be ignored.

When Muhammad Morsi became president, the Brotherhood’s sectarian rhetoric turned to inciting violence and hatred against Christians. As soon as the winner of the presidential election was announced, the negative acts committed by Brotherhood supporters increased, and persecution in general grew: some of Morsi’s supporters intimidated residents of Coptic neighborhoods as they gloated and expressed their joy over his victory; some schools refused to admit Christian girls because they were not veiled; and some churches were prohibited from ringing their bells or using loudspeakers. On the legal side, Copts and other religious minorities, such as Shi’as and Ahmadis, started finding themselves named in legal complaints for expressing their religious beliefs, which some saw as “contempt of Islam.” In light of these legal complaints, members of religious minorities were arrested and tried in unfair trials.

Topping things off was former President Morsi’s poor handling of the attack on the Coptic Orthodox St. Mark’s Cathedral, the first such attack in its history. The Brotherhood’s reaction to violence of this kind was very slow and sometimes even nonexistent; when they did respond, it was to support traditional, rather than legal, solutions. This approach was no different than that pursued under Mubarak and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, but it ignored the fact that what worked in the past would no longer work in the present. Copts conducted protests leading from churches to state institutions, and it became very difficult to prevent them from objecting to what they saw as targeted crimes against them.

The Brotherhood’s practices helped to build a fear among Copts that the Brotherhood and its supporters would take them back to a time when the ruling regime not only supported religious discrimination but even participated in it. This is part of the reason why Copts participated in the mass protests of June 30, supported the subsequent military intervention, and came to see Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi as a national hero who saved them from a dark future.

At the same time, a large segment of Muslims were similarly appalled by the Brotherhood’s behavior while in power, which went against all that it had promised. The Brotherhood demonstrably broke many of its promises, most importantly the promises to include citizens in decision-making and to improve their day-to-day lives. The people saw that Brotherhood members were too concerned with taking over state institutions, and their condescending language both showed the Brotherhood’s increasing separation from reality and sowed feelings of discontent as they used their policies to enforce a new, conservative way of life on people.

During the months immediately following Morsi’s removal from office, neither the new regime nor the Brotherhood changed their rhetoric. The regime, with its security and media institutions, continued to demonize the Brotherhood and its supporters, blaming them for virtually all terrorist attacks and the deaths caused by them. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood continued to espouse conspiratorial, inciting language that marked a disconnection from reality. Instead of apologizing for mistakes made during its time in power, the Brotherhood went so far as to have its members battle citizens in some areas, punishing them for taking a political stand against the group and blaming them for Morsi’s removal.

This duality led to the broad conviction that a “security solution” was the only way to ensure the state’s authority and to provide safety and stability. This is how many people justify the law-breaking practices of the security apparatus today, which include torture, abuse of power, random arrests, and denial of other individual rights and freedoms. Similarly, people are now defending trials that lack the minimum requirements of justice, integrity, and respect for the rights of the accused.

The question now is: Even acknowledging the many prior bad acts of the Brotherhood, some of which are mentioned above, should Egyptians accept the clearly politicized trials of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters for attacks on police stations, courts, churches, and the properties of Christians?

The answer to this question is a definite no. The judiciary exists to protect all citizens and to respect and uphold their rights. When feelings of anger and political and religious polarization are strong enough among a majority of the political and executive leadership and the citizenry, the judiciary is supposed to provide safe haven both for those treated unjustly (to receive recompense for their losses) and for those accused of crimes (to be given fair trials according to the law and the general rights and freedoms of citizens). The right of the accused—regardless of the crime in question—to a trial before a natural, independent, objective judge is considered an internationally protected human right and is acknowledged in international rights agreements as well as in the Egyptian constitution. This is just one of  a number of rights and procedures meant to ensure a fair trial for the accused.

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a party, states that “All persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals. In the determination of any criminal charge against him, or of his rights and obligations in a suit at law, everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.”

This requires both that judges not rely on any preconceived opinions on the subjects of trials before them and that they not be biased towards or against the accused. Relatedly, the ICCPR addresses the rights of the defense to question witnesses, to refute grounds, to present motions that support the defense of the accused, and to have ample time to prepare and present defense motions to the court. All of this is generally to be part a public trial in the presence of the accused. In the case of a conviction, there is to be a measured penalty that is appropriate to the crime. In cases with multiple defendants, the extent to which each defendant contributed to the crime must be determined, and the penalty assigned to each must be proportional to that person’s contribution.

Of course, this is a description of how things ought to be, not necessarily how they are. In reality, there are many instances where separating the rulings of a court from the prevailing cultural and social sentiment is impossible. We are not necessarily able to separate between rulings issued and the feelings of judges, the circumstances in which the trials was held, the protections afforded the accused, and whether or not the accused were tortured or treated inhumanely.

The two recent trials involving the attack on the Matai police station are prime examples of proceedings that did not adhere to the rules of fair trials. During an interview with Khaled al-Koumi, the lawyer for a number of the defendants in the first case, he said that the case—in which 545 people were tried simultaneously under extraordinary circumstances—was completed in three hearings conducted in just over a month. The court refused all of the defense’s motions, causing the defense to request that the panel of judges recuse themselves, a motion that was ignored. The court issued a decision in the first hearing (on March 22, 2014) to schedule adjudication for the very next hearing (March 24) and to allow for further defense motions on that same date. Keeping in mind that the case included over three thousand pages of material, this meant that each lawyer would have to read several pages, form an opinion, and write a relevant motion almost every minute between the two dates! The defense had also presented a request to change venues, a legal procedure done when the accused do not believe that a particular court can afford them a fair trial. In such requests, it is customary for the court in question to postpone the trial and move the motion for a change of venue to a higher court, which then looks into the request and offers its approval or denial. If the request were accepted, then the president of the higher court—the Beni Suef Court of Appeals in this case—would appoint a different court to the case. If, however, the request is refused, the case is continued in the original court. Clearly, this motion was not taken into consideration,

What makes support for these trials among Copts surprising is that many Coptic Egyptians have also faced trials that did not respect the rules of justice. For example, in the period after the January 25 Revolution, Egypt witnessed a number of trials for “contempt of religion.” These trials violated all manner of legal requirements, from denying the defendant’s lawyers a chance to actually defend them to seeing the defendants be beaten by citizens in front of the judges (who did not attempt to interfere). This is in addition to many courthouses hosting such trials having been put under siege by Islamist protesters, who demanded that the courts punish the accused regardless of the facts of the case. At the same time, in some of the trials for acts of sectarian violence, the extent of violations against the victims was ignored. To this day, the public prosecutor—a part of the judiciary—has not filed any suits regarding the killings at al-Khosous and Manshiyat Nasr or the attacks on the Cathedral and the burning and destruction of other churches.

In my research, I have found 48 cases of social tension around, and popular or judicial pursuit of, “contempt of religion” cases from January 2011 to the end of 2013. The penalties in some of these cases were limited to customary penalties by residents, such as forced migration, in contradiction to the law. Some other cases involved penalties by employers, such as firing or wage cuts. There are, however, 28 cases that were looked into by various courts during that period: three in 2011, 12 in 2012, and 13 in 2013. Forty-one defendants were named in these cases, 27 of whom were convicted, and three were acquitted. The cases for 11 of these defendants were refused by the court due to being filed by an irrelevant party. This is in addition to about 8 cases that are still being looked into by the public prosecutor and that have not yet been sent to the relevant courts. Further details of these cases are clearly documented and analyzed in the report entitled “Besieging Thought: Contempt of Religion Cases in Two Years of Revolution,” available through the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

During these trials, which mainly targeted religious minorities, the defendants were repeatedly denied the right to a fair trial. The responsibility for that fell to two main parties. First, the Islamists, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters, were part of instigating and publicizing these cases and applying customary, illegal punishments, such as attacking properties or forced migration. As mentioned, they would also surrounding public prosecutors’ offices and courthouses to influence decisions regarding those they claimed insulted religion. The second party is the justice system itself, which did not protect the constitutionally-enshrined rights of the accused. This failure is evidenced by the accused being unable to defend themselves and the clear biasing of verdicts according to the defendants’ religious affiliation. This factor was evident when questions were asked of the accused about their religious beliefs—an action that is against the constitution—and in the verdicts themselves, which reflected personal values and not laws.

When talking about the role of the public prosecutor as the public lawyer, one cannot forget the cases of sectarian violence the prosecutor is still investigating years after they happened. This is in spite of the fact that, in some cases, the victims have identified the names of their attackers, filed complaints against them, and provided video footage proving their involvement. The responsibility here falls to the public prosecutor’s office—itself a branch of the judiciary—which has not pushed the murder cases such as that of Khosous and Manshiyat Nasr, in addition to the attack on the Cathedral and the burning of churches (like the Sol church), to the relevant criminal courts. In the few instances where cases were filed, they suffered from inadequate use of evidence and were against defendants other than those who had instigated or carried out the violence, resulting in “not guilty” verdicts. This repeated behavior by investigators is a clear violation of the victims’ rights to reparation by bringing the offenders to a fair trial. Weaker groups, like the Coptic community, are the most in need of justice and an independent judiciary. They are also the most in need of assurances of fair trials that provide for the correct application of the law and the punishment of those who commit crimes regardless of their political or executive positions or their religious inclinations.

Naturally, the kind of (in)justice regularly seen in Egypt today violates the rights of both victims and defendants. This is especially true in cases where Christians seek the prosecution of the real perpetrators of the burning and destruction of churches, religious institutions, and other property after the breaking-up of the Raba’a and Nahda sit-ins. The state of the judiciary today also invites questioning of whether the verdicts that are emerging from trials are being reached independently by the courts. Moreover, harsh sentences alone will not act as a deterrent for violence unless they arrived at justly, are in accordance with the law, and are accompanied by social and cultural policies that work towards removing tension within Egyptian society.