The Death Penalty in Egypt
Developments during the last years
Mohammed Mursi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was ousted in a military-led coup in 2013. The commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army under Mursi’s tenure, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, immediately succeeded him and holds the office of president to this day.
After taking power, al-Sisi announced his intention to crush the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mursi belonged. As a result, the former president and numerous Brotherhood leaders, members and sympathizers were indicted and in some cases sentenced to death. The death sentence against Mursi himself was annulled some time later.
Since the fall of the Mursi regime in 2013, convictions resulting in the death penalty have steadily increased-from at least 402 in 2017 to at least 717 in 2018. Amnesty International states that over 2180 death sentences were issued between 2007 and 2016. There are likely more than 2,000 people currently on Egypt’s death row. There has likewise been an increase in the execution of death sentences. According to Reprieve, 159 people have been executed between 2013 and 2019 – 20 so far in 2020 (as of 01.09.2020).
Along with this, experts registered increasingly authoritarian behavior by Egyptian judges. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on executions, Agnès Callamard, the increased use of the death penalty “corresponds to arbitrary killings aimed at breaking possible resistance among the population.”
The Egyptian legal system is based on Islamic Sharia law, which provides for the death penalty for various offenses. Convictions are often handed down in mass trials that last only a few days. Mass trials involve violations of fair trials and are considered illegal under international law.
In recent years, President al-Sisi signed a series of legislative amendments that facilitate disproportionate trials, arbitrary arrests, and indefinite pretrial detention. Nonetheless, al-Sisi passed additional laws authorizing him to appoint the heads of Egypt’s judicial bodies. These include the Supreme Administrative Court and the Court of Cassation. Both were previously considered independent judicial bodies that also held the executive branch accountable.
Extrajudicial executions and disappearances
Amnesty International reported that individuals suspected of engaging in politically motivated violence were reportedly extrajudicially executed by Interior Ministry security forces.
The Egyptian Ministry of Interior stated that more than 120 people were killed in gun battles with security forces during 2017. In many cases, those killed were already in state custody or victims of “enforced disappearance” at the time.
The methodology of “enforced disappearances” has increased in Egypt since 2015. This has involved the arbitrary detention of numerous individuals, including opposition figures, students, demonstrators, political activists, and even children. During detention, all contact with the outside world is denied. Cases have been reported in which detained individuals have been tortured and (sexually) abused by members of the security forces-methods used to procure and coerce confessions that form a basis for convictions under the anti-terrorism law.
To date, the Egyptian government denies any allegations regarding known cases.
Torture and prison conditions
“This is the place where experimental torture is practised. This is the place that when you’re in, there is no out. Words will never do justice to what happens in Egyptian prisons.”
– Ibrahim Halawa (excerpt from a report by Reprieve) –
Torture and other ill-treatment are part of the daily routine in official detention facilities and are systematically practiced in National Intelligence Service detention centers. According to detainees’ accounts to Human Rights Watch, suspects were blindfolded, then stripped and handcuffed before being tortured with electric shocks to sensitive body parts such as the ears or head. In the same move, detainees were physically abused using sticks and metal bars. If the above-mentioned practices did not produce the desired effects, the duration of the electric shocks was prolonged or other and considerably more sensitive parts of the body, such as the genitals, were used. A more detailed description of the torture will not be given here.
In addition, inadequate medical care was registered in prisons. A large number of prisoners died due to refusal of transport to medical facilities and hospitals.
Execution in Egypt is carried out by hanging. Mass executions have reportedly taken place, with up to 15 people executed simultaneously.
Offenses that can be punished by the death penalty include: (premeditated) murder, terrorism-related offenses (which do not necessarily have to result in murder to result in a death sentence), and drug trafficking, rape, kidnapping and espionage.
The death penalty may not be imposed on mentally ill persons or persons younger than 18 at the time of the offense. In the case of pregnant women, the death penalty is to be suspended until two months after the birth of their child.
Sources and further information
Amnesty International: Annual Report 2017/18; Death Penalty Database: Egypt; Reprieve: Spotlight on Egypt; Human Rights Watch: Torture and National Security in al-Sisi’s Egypt
As of September 2020