Saturday, August 1, 2009

Egypt's rising death sentences under fire

The Associated Press
July 29,2009

Egypt's rising death sentences under fire
By Salah Nasrawi (AP)

CAIRO — Legal experts and human rights activists are criticizing Egypt for an abrupt spike in death sentences in recent months, accusing the country's courts of trying to use capital punishment to stem a soaring crime rate.

In June, 75 Egyptians were sentenced to death in comparison to just 86 for all of 2008, noted the Cairo-based Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession in a report issued last week.

The center expressed concern that the "extravagance" with which the penalty was being used meant that defendants were not receiving a fair trial. It also noted that torture is often used by police to elicit confessions.

Nasser Amin, the center's head, said the judges may be acting under government pressure to give maximum penalties to deter a rising crime rate.

"They might be pushed to issue harsher penalties to stop other would be criminals," he said to The Associated Press. "This is very dangerous because judges should ensure that justice is being served while police should take charge of ensuring security."

Under Egyptian law, 90 different crimes can warrant execution, including premeditated murder, rape, drug-related offenses, and "security offenses" such as espionage and attempting to overthrow the government.

There is very little official data available on the actual number of executions carried out in Egypt, but a 2004 report by Amnesty International recorded 382 executions between 1996 and 2001, adding that it believed the actual number to be much higher.

By comparison, Iran executed at least 346 people last year, while Saudi Arabia put 102 people to death.

The increased use of the death penalty in Egypt was driven home by a June 13 case in Damanhour, north of Cairo, where a judge handed down 24 death sentences to defendants accused of killing 11 people in a land dispute.

Few days later, a court in the Nile Delta town of Benha, sentenced seven people to death for armed assault on a rival family.

In another case this month a court in Ismailiya, on the Suez Canal, sentenced 11 to death for killing a Bedouin sheik and wounding his wife and two children in an attack.

On Monday, a man and his son were the latest to be given a death sentence in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria after they were convicted of stealing and killing a businessman and dumping his body into the desert.

All death sentences, however, are subject to appeal and the chief judge of the top appellate court, Adel Abdel Meguid, said cases will be reviewed one at a time to "ensure the verdicts are sound and the law is applied."

"These are cases related to lives of human beings and we should ensure that justice is being served," he told the state news agency Monday.

Crime has been on the rise in Egypt, particularly robbery, as the economic situation worsens amid rising food prices and mounting unemployment.

According to the U.N., 43 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

Ziyad el-Olaimi of the Democratic Lawyers Association accused the government of dealing with economic hardships with the death penalty.

"The government cannot solve the economic problems by sending more people to the guillotine," he said. "This is vengeance not justice."

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