Notorious terrorism court judge El-Sherbiny arbitrarily sentences 82 people, including 22 children, to lengthy prison sentences in mass trial lacking basic due process protections
(Washington D.C., February 1, 2023) – Egyptian authorities should immediately release those imprisoned by a terrorism's court's arbitrary mass sentence of 82 people, including 22 minors, over their engagement in peaceful protests, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) today. Sources have confirmed to DAWN that a mother of one of the 22 children sentenced in the trial committed suicide on January 15, 2023, immediately after her son was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
"The latest ludicrous sentencing, this time of 82 people, including 22 children, for participating in peaceful protests demonstrates the persistent impunity felt by President El-Sisi to silence all forms of dissent," said Jon Hoffman, Research Director for DAWN. "That Secretary Blinken met with El-Sisi in Cairo in the wake of this sentence, reassuring him of continued military support but with virtually nothing to say about the country's deplorable human rights record is all you need to know about the impunity the U.S. government supports."
On January 15, 2023, the First Terrorism Circuit of the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced 82 people to prison sentences ranging from five years to life imprisonment for participating in protests in September 2019. Of the 82 people it sentenced, it gave 38 life sentences and 44 others, including 22 children, sentences ranging from five to 15 years. Of the 38 who were handed life sentences, 23 were tried in absentia, including exiled businessman and actor Mohammad Ali.
These sentences were part of a broader mass trial of 103 people in a case known in local media as "The Joker" due to protesters wearing face masks resembling the ones worn in the American movie "Joker." The mass trial targeted individuals who supported or participated in the widespread protests throughout Egypt in 2019 against President El-Sisi, ultimately resulting in over 4,000 arrests. The protests coincided with a call by exiled Egyptian businessman and actor Mohammad Ali for demonstrations to demand El-Sisi's resignation. Smaller demonstrations were also held in the United States and Canada against Egypt's president.
The court's charges against the sentenced defendants varied, including participation in the protests; posting videos on YouTube, Facebook, and other media platforms; and encouraging and documenting the mobilization. Other charges alleged that protesters were responsible for "disrupting transportation" and using "force and violence against public officials."
Judge Mohammed Saeed El-Sherbiny, who heads the Fifth Terrorism Court of the Cairo Criminal Court, delivered the mass sentences on the apparent basis of collective guilt. DAWN previously profiled Judge El-Sherbiny, documenting his extensive record of judicial and legal abuses of Egyptian civil society as part of a campaign to intimidate them into silence.Prosecutors did not present evidence of individual criminal culpability against any of the defendants, according to a DAWN interview on January 30, 2023, with a lawyer representing several of those accused.
The lawyer, who was present at the hearings, said that prosecutors also presented no evidence linking those sentenced to engaging in violent activities, disrupting transportation, or damaging public or private property. The allegations of the court regarding defendants encouraging violence directly contradict, for example, video statements issued by Mohammad Ali calling for protests and explicitly discouraging violence. Additionally, ample video documentation of the protests show protesters demonstrating peacefully and then being attacked by security forces. Some of those sentenced had no links to the demonstrations at all and appear to have been arrested for voicing criticism of El-Sisi online prior to the protests.
The trial also marked any semblance of basic due process. Egyptian authorities did not present many of those sentenced with arrest warrants or any other legal explanation for their arrests, and prevented lawyers from communicating with the defendants or viewing relevant case papers. Additionally, security forces broken into and searched the homes of a number of those detained without a judicial warrant. Several of those sentenced reported instances of torture to the lawyer interviewed by DAWN, showing him the physical injuries on their bodies suffered from being abused, he said. As a result of the state of emergency within Egypt and the convictions being delivered in a terrorism court, defendants cannot appeal these sentences.
During the same interview with the lawyer representing several of those accused on January 30, they told DAWN that a mother of one of the teenagers sentenced during this mass trial committed suicide immediately following Judge El-Sherbiny's verdict on January 15. The mother's suicide spotlights an alarming trend developing in the country as the political, economic, and social realities facing Egyptians worsen. The suicide rate within Egypt has spiked considerably over the past few years: in 2022, 7,881 Egyptians committed suicide compared to 3,022 in 2019. Egyptian MP and Deputy Chair of the Freedom Party Ahmed Mahana proposed a new law criminalizing suicide as worsening conditions within Egypt are pushing people into desperation.
"The suicide of one of the mothers of the sentenced teenagers epitomises they myriad ways President El-Sisi has failed the Egyptian people and how the U.S. has failed to hold him accountable for his actions," said Mohammed Kamal, Egypt Research Assistant for DAWN. "The people of Egypt are facing unprecedented levels of desperation as a result of El-Sisi's policies."
The news of these sentences come as El-Sisi is expected to soon begin the "National Dialogue" initiative announced in April 2022. The announcement of the National Dialogue was significant because it represented the first major initiative with the possibility of bringing together the government and various elements of the opposition. Egypt's National Dialogue coordinator, Diaa Rashwan, announced two weeks ago that the initiative is set to begin in the "next few days," but no official date has yet been established. Additionally, the Board of Trustees of the National Dialogue released a list of the broader topics and subcommittees comprising the initiative, as well as opposition groups set to attend.
The success of the National Dialogue hinges on whether the government is willing, or capable, of enacting comprehensive political, economic, and social reform while also guaranteeing the protection of human rights. The sentences handed to 82 Egyptians for expressing their rights to peacefully protest or supporting such efforts directly contradict the narrative the government is advancing that they seek to engage meaningfully with opposition.
On January 30, 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Egypt and stressed the United States' commitment to the "strategic partnership" between Washington and Cairo, without seriously pressing El-Sisi on deteriorating political, economic, and human rights in the country. The United States should pressure El-Sisi into releasing the 82 individuals sentenced in addition to all other prisoners of conscience currently detained in Egypt. DAWN calls on the U.S. Congress to cease its $1.3 billion in annual military support to Cairo in light of its systematic and widespread rights abuses, pursuant to U.S. law, and to avoid further contributing to such abuses.