Tuesday,30 May, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Tuesday,30 May, 2017
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Overhauling criminal procedure

Changes to the criminal procedures law intended to combat terrorism and expedite trials are to be discussed by parliament, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

Overhauling criminal procedure
Overhauling criminal procedure

Draft amendments to the criminal procedures law were approved by the cabinet on 9 May, clearing the way for parliament to debate and vote on the changes.

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said the law had been changed at the request of judges, MPs and civil society activists who had argued slow litigation helps criminals and terrorists evade punishment.

“There was a consensus the law needed to be amended to help combat terrorism, reduce the time trials take, and address problems related to custodial sentences,” said Ismail.

Ismail said the draft law has already been reviewed by both the Interior Ministry and the State Council.

Interior Ministry officials and MPs began to press for the 1950 criminal procedures law to be overhauled in the wake of December’s suicide bombing of a church attached to St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral which left 27 people dead and more than 40 injured.

Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives Suleiman Wahdan says the changes will help expedite trials of terrorist suspects.

“There is no problem with the existing penalties for terrorist crimes. The problem lies in the way trials are spun out, helping terrorists evade punishment,” said Wahdan.

In a statement issued on Saturday the cabinet said amendments to the criminal procedures law (Law 150/1950) would promote justice by speeding up litigation, particularly terrorism-related cases, in a manner that ensures rights enshrined in the constitution are upheld.

Though the criminal procedures law has been amended 20 times since it was issued in 1950 the cabinet argued the sluggish pace of trials continued to undermine the principles of justice. “The amended law now includes 560 articles of which 150 have been amended and 44 are new,” said the cabinet statement.

“The amendments were drafted by a panel of judges, criminal law professors, members of the cabinet’s Higher Committee on Legislative Reform, Interior Ministry legal experts and representatives of civil society organisations.”

Alaa Abed, head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, says trials will be speeded up by allowing defendants the right to appeal verdicts once rather than twice.

“Currently defendants are allowed two appeals after which the Court of Cassation can issue a final verdict,” said Abed. “The process allows trials to be strung out interminably, without any justification.”

“Under the amended law if an appeal is accepted the defendant will face trial before the Court of Cassation which issues final judgements rather than facing a retrial in another criminal court and receiving a sentence that can once again be appealed.”

The cabinet’s statement underlined how the draft law gives judges in criminal courts greater powers to speed up legal procedures. “For example, judges will have powers to help settle financial and economic disputes through reconciliation rather than long and slow trials,” it said.

“For the first time judges will also be allowed to use mobile phones to notify witnesses and lawyers of the date of trials and court hearings.”

Speaking at a human rights conference on Monday Mohamed Fayek, head of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), said the amended criminal procedures law addresses pressing issues, including concerns over the frequency with which prison terms are handed down. “Human rights organisations have long campaigned for a reduction in custodial sentences,” said Fayek.

Articles 54 and 55 of the constitution stipulate the criminal procedures law be amended to regulate custodial sentences so they do not negatively impact on personal rights and human dignity.

“The NCHR has long argued custodial sentences should not be abused by the Interior Ministry or prosecution authorities to detain defendants indefinitely,” says Fayek. “I am happy the government has at last decided to reform the custodial system in a way that honours its human rights obligations without undermining the goal of overcoming terrorism.”

“The law was amended in line with Article 54 of the constitution which states that there must be a limit placed on custodial prison terms,” said the cabinet’s statement. “The law now urges prosecutors to impose financial penalties in many cases rather than remanding defendants in custody pending trial.”

“The law also obliges prosecutors to limit the time defendants can be banned from travelling abroad.”

The draft law will prohibit the live broadcast of trials.

“Lawyers of high-profile public figures such as former president Hosni Mubarak have complained that live coverage of their clients’ trials was allowed only to tarnish the image of defendants rather than help people follow the case in an objective way,” said Fayek.

In some cases the law also requires newspapers to obtain the approval of judges before publishing news about trials. Fayek opposes the stipulation while Abed defends the provision, arguing it will ensure newspapers are objective in their coverage of high-profile cases.

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