President Husni Mubarak should immediately order a retrial for three men convicted of playing a role in the October 2004 terrorist attacks in Sinai resort town of Taba, Human Rights Watch said today.
Serious allegations of torture and forced confessions, as well as prolonged incommunicado detention and lack of consultation with counsel, raise significant doubts about the fairness of the trial, which Human Rights Watch monitored.
An exceptional State Security Court in Isma`iliyya on November 30 sentenced Yunis Muhammad Mahmud `Alian to death for terrorism, murder, and belonging to a terrorist group in connection with the Taba attack. The court also sentenced Osama Muhammad `Abd al-Ghani al-Nakhlawi and Muhammad Jayiz Sabbah Hussein to death for terrorism, being an accessory to a murder, belonging to a terrorist group and other crimes related to the Taba attacks. It sentenced 10 other men to between five and 25 years in prison for their alleged role in the attacks. All of them claimed to have been tortured and forced to confess, and none of them were allowed to meet at all with their lawyers during their pretrial detentions, or to meet privately with them during the course of their trials.
The court, which will issue its full verdict within the next two weeks, was set up under provisions of Egypt’s Emergency Law. While its verdicts may not be appealed, President Mubarak may order a retrial or change the verdicts.
“The defendants’ allegations of torture, forced confessions and lack of access to counsel raise serious doubts about the fairness of this trial,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Particularly since the defendants face execution, Mubarak should order a new trial that will respect due process.”
The defendants, including those who were not sentenced to death, say they will begin a hunger-strike to protest their trial and poor prison conditions on December 20.
After bombings in Taba killed 34 people on October 7, 2004, State Security officers arbitrarily arrested between 2,500 and 3,000 people. State Security officers detained Muhammad Jayiz on October 22, 2004, and held him without charge. Despite repeated requests, they refused to grant him access to a lawyer until the first day of his trial on July 2, 2005.
At Jayiz’s first court hearing, he testified that State Security officers had kept him blindfolded, bound, and unaware of his location, and had hung him by his arms and legs and used electrical currents to torture him for a week before he confessed at his second meeting with a State Security prosecutor, on November 4, 2004. In his testimony to the court, Jayiz emphasized that he had agreed to the confession only because he feared further torture, and that while he had told the prosecutor about his torture and requested medical attention and a lawyer, the prosecutor had denied his requests.
Jayiz only obtained a lawyer when Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam presented himself to the court during the first trial date and said he wished to represent him. This was his first contact with the defendant. At that time, the court granted their request for a medical examination. The court moved to a private session, which a lawyer on behalf of Human Rights Watch was allowed to attend, during which Jayiz was stripped of his clothes so the court could examine whether he had physical signs of torture, and subsequently allowed a doctor to examine him. A medical report from this exam, dated July 7, 2005—more than eight months after the time Jayiz alleged the torture took place—noted injuries that could be consistent with torture, but said that “because time had passed, and because they were not inspected at the time [the injuries] were received, it was impossible to tell how or when they were received.” Seif al-Islam was able to meet with Jayiz in prison on July 13, 2005, but only in the presence of a State Security officer.
State Security officers arrested Osama Muhammad on August 12, 2005. He was one of hundreds of men detained after three explosions killed 67 people in the resort town of Sharm al-Shaikh on July 23. He first saw a State Security prosecutor on August 22, 2005, and signed a written confession on his role in the Taba bombings during this first meeting. He later testified that State Security officers had tortured him during his initial detention.
Muhammad was not represented by a lawyer until he first appeared in court. During his trial, he was able to communicate with his lawyer only through the bars of the cage in the courtroom with a State Security officer standing close by.
The court granted his lawyers’ request for a medical examination when his trial opened on March 26, 2006, but the medical examination did not occur until two months later—nine months after Muhammad said he was first tortured. The report, dated May 27, noted injuries that could be consistent with torture, but was unable to determine the cause of his injuries because so much time had passed.
State Security officers arrested Yunis Muhammad on September 28, 2005. He signed a written confession during his first appointment with a State Security prosecutor on November 20. He subsequently told the court that State Security officers tortured him in order to extract his confession before he saw the prosecutor.
He first had access to counsel when he first appeared in court on March 26, along with Osama Muhammad and 13 other new defendants introduced at that session, but, like the others, was able to communicate with his counsel only through the bars of the cage in the courtroom throughout his trial. Although defense lawyers requested a medical examination on this first court date, the exam did not take place until May 27. A medical report from that date also noted injuries that could be consistent with torture, but again was unable to determine their cause because of the amount of time that had passed since the alleged torture took place.
Egypt’s Emergency Law allows for prolonged incommunicado detention, in contravention of international legal standards on the right to a fair trial and to adequate representation by a lawyer. It is during such periods of prolonged incommunicado detention when detainees are at greatest risk of abuse, and it is during this time that all three defendants alleged having been tortured to force them to confess.
“By allowing security services to hide suspects from the world for months at a time, Egypt’s Emergency Law makes it easy for investigators to mistreat them with impunity,” Whitson said. “By the time the detainees see the light of day, it’s difficult to prove whether their allegations about being tortured into confessing are true.”
A lawyer who attended the trial on behalf of Human Rights Watch noted numerous other irregularities. The court, for example, was not troubled that Yunis Muhammad confessed to having used a different kind of bomb, in a different place, and using a different car than investigators at the crime scene had concluded had been used and placed.
“Given the seriousness of the charges, the Egyptian government should have bent over backwards to ensure they had a fair trial,” Whitson said. “If President Mubarak is going to convince Egyptians that these men are truly guilty of the terrible attacks in Taba, he should insist they get a new trial that complies with basic standards of due process.”
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1982, holds that defendants should have adequate time to prepare for their defense with counsel of their choosing, and that convicts should have the right to appeal their convictions and sentences to a higher tribunal. The Convention Against Torture, which Egypt ratified in 1986, holds that, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Human Rights Watch also raised serious concern about the death penalty sentence against the men. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel and inhumane nature. The cornerstone of human rights is respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings and the inviolability of the human person. These principles cannot be reconciled with the death penalty, a form of punishment that is unique in its barbarity and finality. The intrinsic fallibility of all criminal justice systems assures that even when full due process of law is respected, innocent persons may be executed.
International human rights standards stipulate that where the death penalty has not been abolished, it be imposed only in cases where due process has been scrupulously applied, including the right of the defendant to competent defense counsel, to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and to appeal both the factual and legal aspects of the case to a higher tribunal.