Egypt's Death Penalties Set New Standard Of Severity

This week an Egyptian court sentenced over 500 people to death. NPR's Leila Fadel tells NPR's Scott Simon that it was one of the harshest verdicts ever imposed in modern Egypt.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Egypt shocked the world earlier this week when it sentenced more than 500 people to death. All of them were from a small town called Matai, some 100 miles south of Cairo. Now, activists say this is part and parcel of a wide crackdown that's been taking place in Egypt for months now, since the popularly backed coup against the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from Cairo. Leila, thanks so much for being with us.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Help us understand how 500 people get sentenced to death?

FADEL: Basically, they had about an hour of court time total. Most were sentenced in absentia. The judge ended the first session in just 45 minutes - no evidence presented at all. And at the next session, sentenced them - almost all of them - to death.

SIMON: Leila, sentenced to death for what?

FADEL: They were sentenced to death over the killing of one policeman on August 14th of 2013, the day that the government was dispersing a pro-Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in Cairo and hundreds were killed. Now, that could still be overturned but the concern is that there is a larger crackdown here. I spoke to Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui from Amnesty International recently and I'd like you to hear what she had to say.

HASSIBA HADJ SAHRAOUI: The authorities are quite open about it now. They're quite determined to do what they consider they need to do and they no longer care about international criticism.

FADEL: Since that decision on Monday, that same judge that sentenced 529 to death, presided over another mass trial and plans to sentence those people - we're not sure to what yet - on April 28.

SIMON: You went to Matai this week, I gather. What did you hear there?

FADEL: Well, this is a really small town. It's the kind of town where you drive in and you ask for somebody by name, and pretty much everybody knows who he is. And so really every street had a family to maybe a dozen who were related to somebody who had been sentenced to death. We met with one woman, Hanette Danal(ph), who was married to an Islamic sheik who was sentenced to death and is now in jail. And here's what she had to say to me.

HANETTE DANAL: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Now, she's saying that she never thought something like this could happen in Egypt. She was saying they as a family never criticized the state. So, imagine if they had criticized the state - her husband sentenced to death. She said he never ran because he didn't think he would be convicted of anything because he felt he was innocent and he could prove that in court. And now he's in jail and she's not sure he'll ever come home.

SIMON: Leila, tell us about what's seen as the wider crackdown in Egypt. Are there specific targets?

FADEL: It all began really this summer when Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power. Now, much of the country had turned against this elected president for perceived abuses of power, for bad leadership. But following that, we saw a crackdown that is really unprecedented against his supporters. And then it widened to critics of the state, and widened even further to really any protestors. We're seeing protestors being shot, people are dying every week. Thousands have been killed since July and thousands more arrested. And at the same time, there have been other mass trials. They didn't get death sentences but they're getting three years, 15 years in prison. We're not sure what evidence is being provided that really convicts them and journalists also are on trial here. Again, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui spoke to us about this.

SAHRAOUI: This ruling just highlights all the shortcomings of the justice system but also how selective it is. We have a number of politically motivated prosecutions of leftist activists, of Al Jazeera journalists, of supporters of ousted Mohamed Morsi. But on the other hand, we also have security forces that really have been allowed to get away with murder.

SIMON: Leila, Egypt's military chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, said that he's going to run for president in elections that are required. Is he considered a reformer?

FADEL: No, not really. This is the military chief of Egypt. This is the military that backs this crackdown that is going on right now. But a lot of people really do support him. They see him as a stabilizing figure, somebody that they can trust after more than three years of instability. And during his announcement that he would run for president, he told people there will be challenges ahead but we need to live in freedom and dignity. For those that are suffering in this crackdown, it sounded like hypocrisy. They want dignity, they want freedom and they're not really allowed to voice that. Now, this is a really tumultuous time in Egypt. There have been attacks on security forces, terrorist attacks here in Egypt. And the state says that they're just doing this to protect Egypt, to protect the Egyptian people.

SIMON: NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo. Thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you.

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