Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 December 2005
Issue No. 771
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Closer to the right role

Going into the final stage of parliamentary elections, judges supervising the polls are being given more guarantees than before. Will that, asks Mona El-Nahhas, end their ongoing struggle with the state?

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A MATTER OF MONITORING: Judicial authorities try to ensure a fair vote, despite a variety of obstacles

When Noha El-Zeini -- a deputy chairwoman at the Administrative Prosecution Authority -- decided to speak up about the rigging she saw take place at a polling station she was supervising, all hell broke loose. El-Zeini's testimony -- which was published in the independent Al-Masry Al-Yom newspaper -- alleged that election results in the Damanhour constituency of Al-Bandar were rigged in favour of prominent NDP candidate Mustafa El-Feki, the head of the outgoing parliament's Foreign Relations Committee. "When the vote counting started at the main polling station in the presence of the heads of the auxiliary stations," El-Zeini wrote, "it was apparent that [El-Feki's rival, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Gamal] Heshmat would end up with a sweeping victory." She said it looked as though Heshmat had obtained around 25,000 votes compared to El-Feki's 8,000.

When El-Feki was later declared the winner, El-Zeini felt the need to speak up. "I am not afraid of the consequences. This is my testimony before God and the public, and I don't care if I lose my job or even my life," she wrote. "I only care for justice which we, the judges, swore to defend."

El-Zeini said she had no connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that her testimony was not meant to back a specific candidate. Rumours had already begun emerging that one of her uncles was in the group.

El-Zeini's testimony catalysed reactions from other judges about electoral fraud. The heads of 137 (out of 160) other polling stations in the same Damanhour constituency backed her claims. A complaint was filed at both the prosecutor-general's office, and with the head of the Parliamentary Electoral Commission (PEC).

On Sunday, the State Council Judges Club absolved itself of the rigged results of the second stage run-offs. Cassation Court Deputy Chief Justice Mahmoud Mekki called the elections "a farce, in which judges acted as extras".

Judges' clubs in both Cairo and Alexandria, meanwhile, have been receiving numerous complaints from judges who took part in the supervision, and who were subject to insults and attacks. The clubs referred the complaints to the prosecutor-general, asking for investigations into the incidents, and moral compensation for the judges involved.

In a statement issued by the Cairo club, judges also threatened to request military protection for the polls, in light of the police's inability to fulfil that mission. The statement quoted a constitutional article that gives auxiliary station heads the right to ask for the army's help if the police fail to properly secure the polls. The statement criticised the police for failing to prevent violence during voting, and particularly for allowing thugs to intimidate voters, block access to polling stations, attack judges and steal or even burn ballot boxes.

This outspoken criticism prompted an angry reaction from state-appointed members of the Supreme Judicial Council, who released a statement asking the prosecutor-general to immediately initiate an investigation into a group of judges who they described as a minority aiming to harm the judiciary's overall image. Known for their pro-reform stances, the judges in question were accused of interfering in politics. "We regret that a handful [of judges] do not refrain from appearing on satellite channels to comment on political issues and claim that the electoral process was a fraud," the statement said. "This is a clear violation of the judiciary law, which prevents judges -- in order to guarantee their neutrality -- from getting involved in politics, even by expressing their opinions."

According to Cassation Court Deputy Chief Justice Hesham Bastawisi, the statement "clearly shows that the state wants to silence us. Judges who reveal the truth will be prosecuted or fired. It's that simple", he said.

The Judiciary Council's stance also prompted eight human rights groups to warn the government against taking revenge on judges for their honourable position during elections. The NGOs also expressed their resentment regarding the Judiciary Council statement's threatening tone.

During a press conference at the Bar Association headquarters on Tuesday, lawyers also expressed their full support for the judges.

The government has reacted to the outcry by pledging that the third stage will be conducted fairly. On Monday evening, the head of the PEC met members of both the Cairo and State Council Judges Clubs to issue a joint statement announcing a number of measures that judges think will act as safeguards against electoral fraud during this final elections stage.

The measures include providing each judge in charge of supervising elections at auxiliary polling stations with two copies of voters' lists, as a safeguard against the lists being replaced in run-offs, which happened during the second stage.

Judges should also be given an official record of the vote-count at each polling station so that it cannot be changed later. The results will also be announced on loudspeakers at the auxiliary polling stations.

Judges are also being allowed to monitor the situation outside polling stations to check for irregularities committed either by the police or candidates' supporters.

While these promises appear to have toned down the confrontation between judges and the state, the third stage will reveal whether this will only be the calm before the storm.

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