Opinion

Op-ed

In Defense of Judicial Independence in Egypt

Crowds of people struggled to enter the Cairo Criminal Court in May to share their anger over relatives killed during protests.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies is extremely concerned about judicial independence in Egypt during the transitional phase. Although it was assumed that the success of the January 25 revolution was expected to give a large boost to judicial autonomy and norms of justice, we have noticed that judges have come under increasing pressure in the past few months.

The judicial system itself evidences an unjustifiable double standard, as civilians are prosecuted before both military and civil tribunals. In the first, trials are swift, sometimes no more than a few hours, and end with harsh penalties, often against defendants who are tried without defense counsel. In contrast, in the second type of court, where prominent figures of the old regime and leaders of the security apparatus are being tried, justice moves at a much slower pace; the attorneys for the defense are present, but the families of martyrs are not. In tandem with this, critics of military trials, including civilian judges themselves, are penalized.

We fear that the attacks by martyrs' families on police and their vehicles this week, during the trial of former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and several of his senior aides, will not be the last incident of its kind. Courthouses have already been surrounded, courtrooms attacked, and attempts made to assault defendants, as was seen a few weeks ago in the South Cairo Criminal Court, in protest of the postponement of a trial of police officers accused of killing demonstrators even while the defendants remain at liberty. Another example was in March, when Alexandrians assembled at a city courthouse to protest the court's decision to release defendants accused of killing dozens of demonstrators in Alexandria.

We realize that the families of those who died in the revolution—and indeed Egyptians in general—have legitimate doubts about the course of the trials being conducted for former senior officials in the Interior Ministry and security apparatus who are accused of crimes. These doubts amplify particularly given the double standard clearly followed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in its application of justice. While the authorities show a marked, and laudable, interest in providing due process guarantees for a fair trial in front of one's natural judge for senior security and former regime figures, it follows a different standard when dealing with civilians accused of other crimes, bloggers, political activists and suspected thugs, who are brought before military trials lacking due-process guarantees, including the right to appear before one's natural judge.

These doubts and suspicions are intimately linked to the legacy of the Mubarak era, which saw widespread immunity for crimes by police that shielded them from accountability and punishment. Mubarak's regime did not hesitate to mobilize judges and investigative authorities to target critics and opponents, or to reinforce the lack of accountability. This is illustrated by the hundreds of complaints filed with the Public Prosecutor's office in previous decades that were never investigated, and many of which were ultimately closed without action.

Guarantees for a fair trial, which all defendants in all cases must enjoy, are particularly important in the cases involving the deposed president, regime figures and security personnel. These guarantees, most importantly the presumption of innocence, are of the utmost importance for arriving at the facts and learning the lessons of the grave systematic and institutional abuses of the three decades of the Mubarak era. Due process and fair trials also guarantee that these trials will not merely stop at a few former officials, while other killers escape justice.

Ending growing pressures on judicial bodies with the goal of influencing their decisions in these cases requires the following:

1. Transparency by the investigating authorities. The authorities should keep the public abreast of the findings of investigations into cases involving former officials with the Mubarak regime and remove judges tainted by suspicions of receiving pre-arranged verdicts against political opponents from the security apparatus during the Mubarak era, unless they are able to dispel these suspicions to the public's satisfaction.

2. Those governing and administering the country's affairs must apply one standard of justice in all cases, regardless of the identity of the defendants or the nature of the charges against them. All defendants have the right to appear before their natural judge, thus authorities should refrain entirely from referring civilians to military trials. In the same context, all defendants must have the equal right of defense, both families of the victims and the defendants. Practical problems should be addressed that prevent victims' families from attending the trials of those accused of killing their loved ones.

3. The judicial inspection authority should immediately be removed from the jurisdiction of the Justice Ministry and made subordinate to the Supreme Judicial Council. This will reinforce judicial independence and help defuse public suspicions about the interference of the executive in judges' affairs and their rulings.

4. The Interior Ministry must assume its responsibility to conduct its own parallel investigation of the abuses attributed to the ministry and its security agencies in decades past. The findings should be announced to the public, and all officers under investigations and current trials must be suspended. The public should be informed about the measures and standards adopted by the Ministry to purge itself of elements responsible for these abuses, which seriously undermined police credibility. It must also apologize to Egyptians for crimes and actions committed by the ministry, its security agencies and many senior ministry officials.

5. The media should maintain a professional and impartial stance in its coverage of all trials, including those for senior regime and police figures. It must consider its responsibility to refrain from influencing judicial decisions through its published content and infringing on the rights of defendants. Additionally, it must avoid media coverage that tends to gratify the public's desire for revenge and present the defendants as criminals before judges pass their verdicts following a trial with all due-process guarantees, conducted in a climate in which judicial rulings are immunized against the pressures of public opinion.

 

This article was originally published by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies: www.cihrs.org.

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