Egypt’s Sisi vows tougher death penalty laws in wake of prosecutor’s murder

Egypt sentenced 509 people to death in 2014, up from 109 in 2013, according to Amnesty International.

Handout by Egyptian Presidency/Reuters
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks to the media near the family of Egyptian public prosecutor Hisham Barakat after Barakat's military funeral service at the Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi Mosque in Cairo, Egypt on June 30, 2015

A day after the assassination of Egypt’s public prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi vowed to enact legal reforms to allow quicker enforcement of death sentences.

"The hand of justice is shackled by the law. We're not going to wait for this," Sisi said. "We're going to amend the law to allow us to implement justice as soon as possible."

Under his tenure, Barakat referred thousands to trial after the military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood - hundreds of whom have been sentenced to death, including Morsi. 

The Brotherhood has denied any responsibility for Monday’s car bomb attack on Barakat’s convoy in Cairo, according to the BBC.

Analysts say the killing bears the hallmarks of a jihadist group based in the Sinai Peninsula that has pledged its allegiance to Islamic State and shot dead two judges and a prosecutor in May, the BBC reported.

Militants have killed at least 600 police and armed forces personnel in the past two years.

Since the overthrow of Morsi, courts have sentenced hundreds of people to death but only seven have been executed. Most death penalties were doled out in summary mass trials which the UN said were “rife with procedural irregularities."

Currently, all death sentences are contingent on oversight by the grand mufti, Egypt’s highest religious authority. If he approves, convictions are still subject to a lengthy appeals process.        

The president didn’t give details of his planned reforms but suggested he may change the appeals process, according to the BBC.

An Amnesty International report on death sentences and executions in 2014 found at least 2,466 people were sentenced to death worldwide – up 28 percent from 2013. They noted this was largely due to sharp spikes in death sentences in Egypt (109 in 2013 to 509 in 2014) and Nigeria (from 141 in 2013 to 659 in 2014). Courts imposed mass sentences in both countries.

China carried out more executions than the rest of the world put together. Amnesty International believes thousands are executed and sentenced to death annually but with numbers kept a state secret, the true figure is impossible to determine.

Fewer executions were recorded in Sub-Saharan Africa, the US and the Asia-Pacific region, excluding China.

China is followed by Iran, with at least 289 death sentences, Saudi Arabia, with at least 90, Iraq, with at least 61 and the US, with 35.

The Christian Science Monitor's Brad Knickerbocker wrote in May that attitudes on the death penalty are wavering, at least in the US:

According to Gallup, most American favor the death penalty (63-33 percent). But the number drops significantly – 50-45 percent approval – when respondents are given the choice of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole

A Pew Research Center poll, taken six months after Gallup’s, found a narrower split between death penalty supporters and opponents (56-38 percent). “Support for the death penalty is as low as it has been in the past 40 years,” Pew reported last month.

Also indicating a potential change of heart, Pew found, 71 percent say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death, 61 percent say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes, and about half (52 percent) say that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes.

In December 2014, the UN voted to adopt a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty – aiming for abolition, in the long term. A record high 117 countries voted in favor of the resolution and the US was one of 38 nations to oppose it. 34 nations abstained.

Amnesty International maintains there is no evidence the death penalty has a greater deterrent effect on crime than terms of imprisonment.

The Associated Press story from 2007, however, reported on studies that suggested death penalties have a deterrent effect but noted they have had little impact on public policy. On the other hand, a Washington Post article reported “despite extensive research on the question, criminologists have been unable to assemble a strong case that capital punishment deters crime.

"We're very hard pressed to find really strong evidence of deterrence," Columbia Law School's Jeffrey Fagan told the Post.

In the majority of countries where people were executed, the death penalty was imposed after proceedings that didn’t meet international fair trial standards and may have included confessions induced by torture, according to the Amnesty International report.

Al Jazeera English reports Egyptian human rights groups say the nation’s judges already have a record of ignoring due process and accuse police of greater abuses.

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