One dead, 529 convicted: a story of judicial revenge in Egypt

The sentencing of 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death for killing a police officer has drawn international criticism and rocked the town of Mattay. What happened on that night? 

By , Correspondent

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    Protesters chant slogans outside of Cairo University in Giza, Egypt, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Hundreds of largely Islamist university students protested against the mass death sentences for 529 accused supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, setting off clashes that left dozens injured. At Cairo University, hundreds of students who attempted to take their protest outside the campus were met with volleys of tear gas from police.
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One percent of the town of Mattay's population was sentenced to death on Monday, when 529 accused supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood received death sentences at the end of a 45-minute trial in nearby Minya.

One resident of the dusty Upper Egypt town of 50,000 joked on Facebook this week: "Will anyone not sentenced to death in Mattay please like this status update so we can figure out how many of us are left?"

The mass sentencing has prompted a furious international outcry. But Magda Abbas, the widow of the policeman whose death at the hands of a street mob in nearby Mattay is at the center of the case, has no qualms. 

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"I think this is fair retribution for what happened to my husband," she said between sobs in a phone interview today from her home in nearby Maghagha.  

Undeterred by global condemnation, Egypt's chief prosecutor on Wednesday announced two more mass trials of a total of 919 suspected Islamists, also in Minya. Another trial of 683 defendants began here on Tuesday, but it was boycotted by the lawyers for the defense and adjourned. It is expected to resume for sentencing on April 28.

Ms. Abbas is pleased with Monday's verdict. "But I can't be happy until the verdict is approved. I pray to god every minute that any appeal will be rejected. God grant us revenge," she said.

What happened that night

On Aug. 14, 2013, police and military forces in Cairo disbanded a massive encampment where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood had been protesting former Mohamed Morsi's ouster for weeks. The sweep killed at least 632 people, according to a report by Egypt's National for Human Rights. Many estimates are higher. 

In Upper Egypt, where support for Mr. Morsi was strong, the reaction was swift and violent. More than 40 Coptic churches were torched – Christians were seen as supporting the coup – and dozens of police stations were attacked.

In Mattay, a dusty town 130 miles south of Cairo, deputy police chief Mostafa El Attar was powerless to defend himself when an angry mob attacked his police station that night.

"Mostafa El-Attar was a good man," says Ahmed Shabeeb, a defense lawyer in the case and a Mattay native. "He tried to reason with the people. But nine Morsi supporters had also been killed that day in Mattay, and emotions ran high." 

Mr. Attar was dragged outside the station and beaten almost to death. When he was brought to the hospital, relatives of dead Morsi supporters whose bodies had also been brought there broke into Attar's room and killed him, Shabeeb says. 

This is the point at which Shabeeb's story diverges from the widow's account. Abbas accuses two doctors, one of them Shabeeb's brother Hossam, of facilitating Attar's killing.

"Both were standing outside my husband's room in the hospital blocking the way against any medical help for him. They only let in the Muslim Brotherhood thugs to kill him. I will not rest before I see them both executed," she says.

Ahmed Shabeeb says his brother tried to save Attar's life by telling the mob that he was already dead. An amateur video appears to support his claim.

Hossam Shabeeb, a Brotherhood member until 1999 and critic of Morsi's removal, was arrested and charged with incitement, but released on bail. He has since fled the country.

Judicial credibility

A trial is where the truth is supposed to come out. But there was nothing normal about the trial that began in Minya on March 22.

In January, nine special courts were created to deal with an estimated 18,977 people arrested in the aftermath of Morsi's removal. Each covers three provinces and is presided over by one judge. Minya got judge Saeed Youssef.

The Minya lawyers didn't know much about Mr. Youssef, who is based in Beni Suef about 80 miles north. But they quickly discovered that early last year he acquitted Beni Suef's chief of police and 10 policemen of the killing of 17 protesters during the initial uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Common criminals killed one of the Youssef's sons, a policeman, during the chaotic aftermath of that revolution. "This is a personal matter for him," says Shabeeb. 

According to the lawyers, an argument broke out as soon as the trial got underway on Saturday. When one tried to argue that special courts like this one are unconstitutional, the judge became incensed.

"How dare you question my authority?" he said, before ordering the security services to train their guns on the lawyers.

And when the defense lawyers subsequently demanded that the judge recuse himself because of his behavior, Youssef flew into a rage.

"Three times he shouted, 'I swear to God, I will sentence all of them to death on Monday,'" says Shabeeb.

Cowed

Maha Sayed's husband, Ahmed Eid, is one of those sentenced to death. Mr. Eid, a lawyer, managed to get 180 people in the Mattay trial released on bail before he was arrested on Jan. 25, the anniversary of the revolution, his wife says.

She has been working tirelessly to convince the authorities of her husband's innocence. "They told me everything would come out during the trial. But there was no trial!" she says.

The town is shell shocked, Ms. Sayed says. "People hardly interact anymore socially. Everyone is afraid they will be next if they say the wrong thing. But inside the homes there is a lot of shouting. People have panic attacks," she explains.

Even Tarek Fouda, the head of the lawyers' union in Minya and a fierce critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been censured. He has been cited for contempt of court because of his criticism of Monday's proceedings.

"I wholeheartedly supported the June 30 revolution," he says in his office in Minya, referring to the mass street protest against Morsi that led to his removal. "I don't care if the 529 are all executed if this is the result of a fair trial. But what this judge has done is an insult to the justice system; he has damaged the image of Egypt in the world."

Monday's verdict is not final. The Grand Mufti, Egypt's highest official of religious law, has yet to give his opinion, which, although non-binding, is influential. And it is likely that an appeal will granted.

There has been no significant violence in response to the verdict, but that doesn't necessarily indicate support.

"The town hasn't been normal since Aug. 14," says Mustafa Mohammed Ahmed. His brother, who uses a wheelchair, is among the 529.

"The security is so heavy that everybody is scared. So many people have been wrongly arrested, and even if you have been released you are still seen as guilty," he says. "It is like the whole town is being punished."

Residents fear that demonstrating against the verdict could sentence them to the same fate, Sayed says. But if the death sentences are upheld on April 28, that won't be enough to stop her.

"We will have nothing left to lose then," she says.

Ahmed Medhat contributed reporting.

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