Egypt overturns Morsi’s death sentence. What about others on death row?

The decision makes it unlikely that the former president will be executed, although he remains imprisoned on a life sentence.

Heba Khamis/AP
Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists gesture from the defendants cage as they receive sentences ranging from death by hanging for one, life in prison for 13, and eight to 15 years for the others after they were convicted of murder, rioting, and violence in a mass trial in Alexandria, Egypt, on Monday, May 19, 2014.

Egypt’s Court of Cassation has overturned a death sentence against Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who briefly led Egypt as its first democratically elected president before being deposed by the military in 2013.   

Mr. Morsi was sentenced to death in June 2015 for crimes stemming from a mass jailbreak during the Arab Spring protests in 2011. He remains in prison, where he is serving life sentence for numerous other charges, The New York Times reports. 

The Court of Cassation made its decision after determining that there were irregularities in the previous trial, meaning the case will go back to the courts for a retrial. Legal analysts say courts would be unlikely to levy the death penalty again, out of fear of turning Morsi into a martyr for the opposition.

“It would be a really big political step, the kind the regime just hasn’t taken. I don’t see any signal to that effect,” says Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor of political science and international affairs who studies Egypt’s judiciary.

The decision comes amid ongoing pressure on Egypt from human-rights advocates and the international community, who have called for the government to bring an end to politicized death sentences and institute a moratorium on the penalty. But it may do little to turn back a huge spike in death sentences that began after Morsi was forced from power and the government of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi began designating special judges to pursue a crackdown on the opposition.

Dr. Brown tells The Christian Science Monitor that he has looked into how the Egyptian government went about deciding which judges would hear cases associated with the (now-banned) Muslim Brotherhood and other sectors of the opposition. 

“The answer seems to be that they selected [judges] who are likely to be quick and ruthless, and likely to accept evidence” originating from the Sisi government’s security apparatus, he says.

They’ve delivered a hail of death sentences, some of them in summary mass trials: In one infamous 2014 decision, a criminal court sentenced 529 Morsi supporters to death for their alleged role in violence occurring after his ouster.

“This is where the Morsi verdict came from as well,” says Brown. “These are trial courts that cut all kinds of corners.”

Most of these verdicts, once appealed, are vacated by judges in higher courts. Amnesty International estimates that 538 death sentences were handed down in 2015 across Egypt, while 22 people were executed that year. That's still significantly more than between 2011 and 2013, when a virtual de facto moratorium was in place, with just one execution carried out, according to a British anti-death penalty group Reprieve. And the group’s analysis found that in 72 percent of the cases, the death penalty was handed out for involvement in political protests.

Egyptian human rights groups and opposition figures have decried the sentences, with members of the National Council for Human Rights calling for a suspension of the penalty and a former Brotherhood leader demanding its abolition, according to Al-Monitor. In October, one independent group, Against the Death Penalty, called for a five-year moratorium, pointing to a “clear deterioration in Egypt’s legal and judicial system.”

Other former senior officials with the Brotherhood also saw their death penalties struck down by the Court of Cassation on Tuesday, reported The Wall Street Journal, including Mohammed Badie, who was part of a group accused of stoking the initial uprising in 2011 that knocked then-leader Hosni Mubarak from power.

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