Geneva, 25 March 2014 – The United Nations human rights office said today it is deeply alarmed by the imposition of the death penalty against 529 people in Egypt on Monday after a “cursory” mass trial in which the majority of defendants were not present in court.
“The astounding number of people sentenced to death in this case is unprecedented in recent history,” Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), told a news conference in Geneva.
“The mass imposition of the death penalty after a trial that was rife with procedural irregularities is in breach of international human rights law.”
The 529 defendants were convicted of various charges, including membership of an unlawful organisation (the Muslim Brotherhood), incitement to violence, vandalism, unlawful gathering and the killing of one police officer.
All the charges relate to events in August 2013 after the Government of President Mohamed Morsi was ousted. Mr. Colville pointed out that this was several months before the Muslim Brotherhood was declared by the Egyptian authorities to be an unlawful organisation. The exact charges against each defendant are unclear as they were not read out in court.
Mr. Colville noted that a death sentence may only be imposed after proceedings that meet the highest level of respect for fair trial and due process standards, and only for the most serious crimes in accordance with international law.
“A mass trial of 529 people conducted over just two days cannot possibly have met even the most basic requirements for a fair trial,” he stated, while also noting that more than three-quarters of the defendants, reportedly 398 individuals, were tried in absentia.
“Membership of a political group or participation in demonstrations certainly does not meet the threshold of ‘most serious crimes’,” he added.
Defence lawyers say that they have had insufficient access to the defendants and that the court did not consider relevant evidence presented by the defence.
According to sources present at the trial, among other procedural irregularities, the judge did not call on each defendant by name; some of the defendants who were in detention at the time of the trial were not brought to the court; and the judge did not ask about the legal representation of the defendants.