Egypt has executed six men convicted of carrying out an attack on a checkpoint in the Sinai that killed several soldiers, despite evidence at least three of the accused were already in detention at the time of the assault.
Human rights groups called for a retrial for the six men after the death sentence was upheld on March 24, describing the military court processes as “flawed” and “grossly unfair”.
They say the death penalty is now the Egyptian authorities’ “favourite tool” for purging political opposition in a country that remains deeply divided since the overthrow of former dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
The six men who were executed – state media reported they were hanged – were part of a group of nine convicted of participating in attacks on security forces and killing two officers in 2014, Human Rights Watch said.
Two of the nine men were sentenced to life in prison. Another man was tried and convicted in his absence and sentenced to death.
The men alleged they had been tortured into confessing to being members of the terrorist organisation Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. One of the defendants, Khaled Farag, told his father he was blindfolded and tortured by his interrogators, suffering a broken left thigh and a serious fracture of his left knee.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which pledged allegiance to Islamic State in November 2014 and is now known as “Sinai Province”, has claimed responsibility for many attacks, including suicide bombings and beheadings, that have resulted in the deaths of dozens of Egyptian soldiers and civilians, mostly in the northern Sinai province that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Three of the men, Mohamed Bakry, Hani Amer and Mohamed Afifi, could not have participated in the attacks because they had been arrested in late 2013 and were in detention at the time, their lawyer, Ahmed Helmy, said.
Mr Helmy told Human Rights Watch Egyptian authorities sent all three men to Azouli Prison, an unregistered detention facility inside al-Galaa army base in Ismailia following their arrest.
Their executions came a day after an Egyptian court sentenced the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, to death for his role in a prison escape in 2011.
At least 105 other defendants were also sentenced to death in the mass trial of political prisoners – a spectacle that has become commonplace in Egypt under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. More than 1200 people have received the death penalty in two mass trials alone.
The 63-year-old Dr Morsi – a senior figure in the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – was president from June 2012 until he was ousted by the military in July 2013 after mass public protests over his leadership.
Human rights groups condemned the sentence, with Amnesty International saying Dr Morsi’s trial was “undermined even before he set foot in the courtroom”.
“The fact that he was held for months incommunicado without judicial oversight and that he didn’t have a lawyer to represent him during the investigations makes these trials nothing but a charade based on null and void procedures,” said Said Boumedouha, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.
Dr Morsi is already serving a 20-year prison sentence over charges relating to deadly clashes around the presidential palace in December 2012 and faces another trial on charges of spying, leaking classified intelligence reports and taking part in terrorism-related activities.
Along with other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Dr Morsi was jailed by Mr Mubarak in the dying days of his presidency. On January 28, 2011, the group managed to escape amidst the chaos that engulfed Egypt as the revolution gained pace.
Hamas – the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group that rules neighbouring Gaza – was also implicated in the prison break and it too voiced its protest against the court’s decision.
The verdict was based on “false information”, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement, noting that two of those convicted – Tayseer Abu-Senema and Hossam al-Sanea – had died before the Egyptian revolution even began.
Another, Hassan Salama, had been in prison in Israel for the last 19 years, Mr Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
The fate of Dr Morsi and his co-defendants rests, as is customary in all death penalty sentences, with Egypt’s grand mufti.
The final verdict is due on June 2 and after that the convicted men can lodge an appeal with Egypt’s highest court, the Court of Cassation.
Egypt’s State Information Service condemned the barrage of criticism the country has endured following Morsi’s death sentence on Saturday. It described the censure as “an unacceptable intrusion into the work of the Egyptian judicial system”.
The criticisms represented a “blatant disregard for the core principles of any true democratic system”.