Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Supreme Court: Justice in the balance

Cairo’s Supreme Court, the symbol of justice in Egypt, has amply witnessed the steadfastness of the judiciary in the face of the challenges brought against it, writes Sayed Saleh

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Al-Ahram Weekly

One would be hard put to find an Egyptian who does not know the Supreme Court Building in Cairo.

It is a landmark as familiar as the sun in the sky to all, regardless of social or educational background. Yet few people may be aware that this very same building once served as the headquarters of the Zamalek Club.

Not long after founding the club in 1911, Georges Marzbach, a Belgian lawyer who served as chief magistrate of one of Egypt’s “mixed courts”, decided to move its headquarters from Qasr Al-Nil Street to a new location on 26 July Street.

He wanted to expand the club, which was growing and becoming more popular among Egyptian and expatriate young people. The move was made in 1913, at which point the name was changed to the Mukhtalat Club. It was not until 1959 that the club settled into its current premises in Mit Okba in Mohandessin and acquired its present name of the Zamalek Club.

The Supreme Court was designed by Egyptian architect Mohamed Kamal Ismail, who drew on Italianate architectural influences, as evidenced in the building’s towering columns, majestic façades and large interior spaces.

The building houses several judicial bodies, including the offices of the prosecutor-general, Court of Cassation, Court of Appeals and Supreme Judicial Council. It also serves as the premises of the Cairo Lawyers Syndicate.

It houses a number of courtrooms, the most famous of which is named after Abdel-Aziz Fahmi, the celebrated judge, lawyer, politician and poet, and a prominent figure in the Egyptian nationalist movement in the early 20th century.

The Abdel-Aziz Fahmi Courtroom is another symbol of justice in Egypt. Beneath the lofty ceiling of this chamber some of Egypt’s most celebrated lawyers and judges have been heard, arguing many of the country’s most important cases in the course of more than three-quarters of a century.

After the 25 January Revolution, the Supreme Court became a place where demonstrators of various stripes converged. It was seen as a refuge for the defenders of a cause. Protestors from diverse occupational backgrounds aired their grievances from its steps. Even judges striking against the judicial authority law staged a sit-in there. The Supreme Court has borne testimony to many post-revolutionary events, not least demands for retribution made for the martyrs of the January Revolution.

The Court of Cassation in Cairo is similarly famous. This grand edifice, constructed 84 years ago, is on the premises of the Supreme Court. The Court of Cassation is the peak of the country’s judicial system, in accordance with the constitution and the law, which places it at the forefront of the Egyptian court system. It has also been at the forefront of public and media attention, as it has the final say in legal cases.

It has saved many people condemned to death, as was the case for the defendants in the “Trial of the Century” that investigated those charged with ordering or collusion in the killing of peaceful demonstrators during the 25 January Revolution.

The Court of Cassation has a bench of 10 judges who deliberate on cases that have been heard in 18 criminal court circuits and 12 civil and civil status circuits in Egypt. It serves to unify the interpretation and application of the law and as a recourse for defendants appealing verdicts issued against them.

 

THE LEGAL YEAR: 2015 could not end without recording the heroic acts and steadfastness of the Egyptian judiciary in the face of various challenges and threats, not least of which have been the terrorist attacks targeting many of its members, from the 24 November massacre of judges in Al-Arish to the 29 June assassination of prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat.

The 12 months of sorrow that the judges have experienced, including the deaths of their colleagues in Al-Arish and the assassination of the prosecutor-general, as well as the bomb detonated in front of the Supreme Court in Cairo and the series of terrorist cases brought before them, never once deterred them from the performance of their duties.

Their spirit of self-sacrifice has been boundless, and it manifested itself most recently in their supervision of the parliamentary elections to complete the third juncture of the roadmap announced in the wake of the 30 June Revolution.

As events this year showed, despite the onerous tasks before them and the formidable challenges and threats, Egypt’s judges were commensurate to the magnitude of their responsibilities.

“2015 was filled with challenges,” said Judge Mohamed Hamed Al-Gamal, a former head of the State Council. “It was a year of crucial issues that riveted the attention of public opinion at home and abroad. Among these were the terrorism-related cases surrounding the Al-Arish massacre that claimed the lives of many judges, the assassination of former prosecutor-general judge Hisham Barakat, and the assassination of the son of Counsellor Salah Abdel-Ghani, deputy president of the State Litigation Authority.”

Among the most salient events this year were the rulings reversing guilty sentences against defendants who had been condemned to death for killing demonstrators. Judge Ahmed Al-Zend was also appointed minister of justice to replace Judge Mahfouz Saber, and Judge Nabil Sadek was appointed successor to the late prosecutor-general Hisham Barakat.

Not only members of the judiciary were targeted by terrorists; so too were its institutional symbols. In March, a bomb was detonated in front of the Supreme Court, killing two people and injuring three others. The attack did not diminish the judges’ resolve and determination to serve truth and justice, however.

In May, Judge Ahmed Al-Zend took the oath of office as minister of justice before President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. He succeeded Judge Saber Mahfouz, who had tendered his resignation against the backdrop of the controversy stirred when he said that he would never appoint the “children of rubbish collectors” to judicial posts.

The Al-Arish massacre claimed the lives of three judges and their driver. It was carried out by the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group just hours after the head of the Cairo Criminal Court, Judge Shaaban Al-Shami, announced that he would submit his findings on the Wadi Natroun prison break case to the Grand Mufti. The case involves deposed former president Mohamed Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Hizbullah members and other defendants.

Clearly, the perpetrators of the attack were seeking to wreak vengeance against the judges and to intimidate the judiciary. This message was confirmed through the terrorist attacks against the Port Said Eastern District Preliminary Court and the Assiut Courts Complex, and the Molotov cocktail attacks by Brotherhood militants against the Al-Sadat Court.

The assassination of the prosecutor-general, with a car bomb that targeted his convoy in the suburb of Heliopolis, triggered a pall of sadness among his colleagues in the judiciary and the Egyptian people as a whole.

However, that heinous terrorist attack, as Justice Minister Ahmed Al-Zend described it, only increased the determination of the judges to implement the law. “The martyrdom of Judge Hisham Barakat will not deter the judges of Egypt and the members of the prosecution-general from the performance of their lofty mission and their constitutionally stipulated duty to apply the rule of law against terrorists and other perpetrators of criminal acts,” he said.

“These terrorist crimes fall within the framework of desperate attempts on the part of terrorist elements to deter judges and prosecutors from the performance of their duties to correctly apply the principles of the criminal law. These crimes will only reinforce the determination of the members of the judiciary and the prosecution-general to enforce the law courageously and without fear or trepidation.”

The assassination of the prosecutor-general while he was fasting during Ramadan was “a hideous act that exposed the iniquitous depths of these terrorist groups and their determination to intimidate members of the prosecution-general and the courts after the sentences handed down against the Muslim Brotherhood leaders,” said Adel Amer, a legal expert and director of the Egyptian Centre for Legal, Political and Social Studies.

Those groups had failed to deliver their message, he said. “They only strengthened the resolve and determination of the members of the judiciary to enforce the law and establish the principles of justice regardless of the sacrifices.”

He continued, “The swift meting out of justice is the shortest road to carrying out the mission of the courts to deter and confront crime.” Amer added that the many challenges the judges face — threats, terrorism, the rising number of cases — compel members of the judiciary to complete their investigations into terrorist-related cases and issue rulings against defendants as quickly as possible so that those convicted can serve as examples to deter others who might contemplate committing terrorist crimes.

On 20 September, Judge Nabil Sadek took office as the new prosecutor-general. He took the oath of office before President Al-Sisi, who then spoke with the newly sworn-in prosecutor about the crucial role the prosecution plays in carrying out justice in terrorist-related cases, the importance of working with the official oversight agencies in fighting corruption, and the need to resolve the cases and issues that have been kept pending during over the recent period.

The two men also spoke of the dynamism that the prosecution-general needed to bring to bear on a variety of issues and in a manner appropriate to the three battles being fought simultaneously: against terrorism, against corruption and, the third, to promote development.

 

PROMINENT TRIALS: On 6 September, former minister of agriculture Youssef Wali, former advisor Ahmed Abdel-Fattah and others were prosecuted in the case referred to in the press as the Bayadiya Island Trial. The defendants are charged with illegally selling land to business tycoon Hussein Salem at below-market prices and misallocating more than LE700 million of public funds.

On 13 September, the same court, the Court of Cassation in the Supreme Court, was the venue of the Steel Licences Trial involving business tycoon Ahmed Ezz. The hearing was to contest the guilty verdict handed down against Ezz in late 2013, and the 37-year prison sentence.

On 5 November, the Court of Cassation was also the scene of the last phase and final measures in the trial of deposed former president Hosni Mubarak on charges of killing peaceful demonstrators during the 25 January Revolution. “The Trial of the Century”, as it was known in the press, riveted domestic and international public opinion for four years.

Earlier, the court had accepted the prosecution’s request to contest the “annulment” of the Criminal Court’s decision, refusing to hear the case against the former president on one charge, namely “collusion in the deliberate murder of demonstrators.” This time the Court of Cassation ruled for a retrial. The court ruled in favour of the deposed president, as well as his sons Gamal and Alaa, and the other defendants in the case.

On 12 October, the court annulled the death sentences handed down against six defendants in what is known as the Kerdasa Case. The Court of Cassation ruled to accept the appeal submitted by the prosecutor-general and five defendants against the verdict handed down against them by the Criminal Court which prosecuted them on charges of storming the Kerdasa Police Station at the time of the breakup of the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in in Cairo in late 2013.

On 15 October, the Court of Cassation resumed hearings on the appeal filed by 38 defendants in the Rabaa Al-Adaweya Operations Room Case, contesting the verdicts passed against them by the Criminal Court. The defendants had been variously condemned to life imprisonment or execution.

The Court of Cassation also heard the appeal filed by the prosecution-general against the verdict acquitting former tourism minister Zoheir Garana and former housing minister Ahmed Al-Maghrabi of charges of profiteering and squandering public funds.

Earlier, Judge Abu Bakr Awadallah, who presides on the bench of the Cairo Criminal Court, had overturned a guilty ruling against the two defendants in a previous trial on these charges.

One of the most high-profile cases of 2015 was the Marriott Cell Case involving 20 Egyptian and foreign journalists, including an Australian, two British nationals and one Dutch national. The case acquired its name as the defendants were alleged to have used the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek in Cairo as their base of operations.

Investigations claimed that the defendants had created a media network headed by an Egyptian-Canadian dual national who was alleged to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The defendants were charged with falsifying and fabricating video footage and broadcasting it via the Al Jazeera television channel with the purpose of distorting Egypt’s reputation in the international community.

2015 also saw major corruption scandals brought before the courts, among them the case surrounding the Ministry of Agriculture that led to the resignation of former minister Salah Hilal and the director of his office, Mohieddin Mohamed Said. Also implicated were Ayman Gamil, a businessman who was accused of bribery, and Mohamed Foda, said to be an intermediary.

The acting prosecutor-general said that the Ministry of Agriculture corruption case had involved officials who had received bribes in the form of tangible assets and had demanded real estate from Ayman Gamil in exchange for enabling him to acquire some 2,500 acres of state land in Wadi Natroun. The “gifts” had included an appointment as a working member of the Ahli Sporting Club with an honorarium of LE140,000, clothing from upmarket stores to the tune of LE230,000, mobile phones worth LE11,000, and a Ramadan breakfast banquet at a luxury hotel costing LE14,500.

In addition, the families of the bribe-takers had asked the briber to cover the travel expenses of 16 persons for the pilgrimage to Mecca to the tune of 70,000 Saudi riyals per person. There was also a request for a luxury home in 6 October City valued at LE8,250,000.

In November 2015, famous business tycoon Salah Diab and his wife and son Tawfiq were arrested shortly after Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek issued a warrant to confiscate the money and property of 17 businessmen owning six major firms.

The businessmen were charged with illegal dealings connected with the sale and acquisition of state land, violations of building codes, the illegal use of agricultural land, the appropriation of public funds, profiteering and brokering illegal transactions. The prosecutor-general issued travel bans against officials and businessmen implicated in the corruption scandals until the investigations were complete.

If 2015 was a year in which the terrorist menace reared its head, threatening the judiciary and its members, it was also one in which the judges and prosecutors redoubled their resolve to contend with many formidable challenges, from terrorism to corruption. They were more determined than ever that justice would prevail.

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