When one looks at old photos of the nine, young and smiling with backpacks on their shoulders, it’s hard to imagine that Ahmed Wahdan, Abul Qassem Youssef, Ahmed Gamal Hegazy, Mahmoud al-Ahmady, Abu Bakr Abdel Megid, Abdel Rahman Soliman Kahwash, Ahmed al-Degwy, Ahmed Mahrous and Islam Mekkawy were really the ruthless plotters of a political assassination.
The nine young men who were hanged Wednesday morning in a Cairo prison by the Egyptian regime are just the latest in a campaign of executions that has reached a new level of intensity in recent weeks.
They were convicted—on the basis of their confessions extracted under torture—of having planned and carried out the assassination of former Attorney General Hisham Barakat, killed in June 2015 by a car bomb. According to their lawyer, their families were informed the night before their execution but were not allowed to visit them (a well-established right): the authorities merely informed them that they should come and take the bodies from the morgue.
The night before the executions, Marwa, the daughter of the victim of the assassination, raised serious doubts about their guilt in a Facebook post: “These young men are not my father’s killers, they will die unjustly.” Her post was soon taken down and replaced by another written by Marwa’s brother, with the exact opposite message, and which hurried to claim that her previous post had been written by someone else who had hacked her Facebook page.
However, the issue of what the relatives of the former prosecutor actually believe is a moot point: nine young men are dead. They joined the other six who had been executed in the last two weeks, according to the anti-death-penalty NGO Reprieve: three who were convicted of murdering a police officer and three convicted of killing the son of a judge, crimes that took place in September 2013, a month after the massacre at Rabaa (where a thousand supporters of ousted President Morsi were killed by Egyptian armed forces).
These three latest group executions have taken place just a few days after Islamist attacks in Sinai against the Egyptian army, in what seems to be a transparent attempt to satisfy the public thirst for a scapegoat.
“Executions have spiked,” said Maya Foa, the head of Reprieve, “amid widespread abuses including gross due process violations, torture, false confessions and the repeated use of mass trials.” All these lie at the core of the judicial system set up by former general al-Sisi after the coup in July 2013. Amnesty International also issued a last-minute condemnation of the latest round of executions one day before, in the hope of stopping them: “[E]xecuting men who were convicted in trials marred by torture allegations is not justice but a testament to the magnitude of injustice in the country,” accused Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director.
Since July 2013, the Egyptian military and civil courts have sentenced 1,451 people to death, mostly members (or suspected members) of the Muslim Brotherhood, after mass trials which violate the basic principles of judicial fairness, often based on confessions extracted under duress and after many years of pre-trial detention. According to Reprieve, 83 executions have been carried out between January 2014 and February 2018. The numbers provided by the Cornell Law School database, which are based on reports from human rights organizations, are higher: according to them, the Egyptian state executed at least 143 people in that timeframe, while only 12 executions had been recorded between 2007 and 2012.
Furthermore, the widespread use of the death penalty is not the only problem: last week, a military court passed sentences on 156 people, 26 of whom were minors at the time of the arrest in 2014. After nearly five years of pre-trial detention, these young people, who at the time of their alleged crimes were between 14 and 17 years old, were handed down sentences ranging from three to five years in prison, in blatant violation of the Egyptian law that prohibits arrest for those under 15 years of age and requires that they be tried in a minors’ court. Almost 3,200 minors have been detained in Egypt since July 2013.