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Has justice taken a backseat to civil order in Egypt’s courts?

February 11, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
Egypt’s judiciary, once renowned as fiercely independent, now faces criticism for the harsh and lengthy imprisonment of political prisoners under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin talks with one family who have tirelessly fought for justice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Five years ago today, Egypt’s longtime ruler, Hosni Mubarak, was removed from power. And he was soon jailed by Egypt’s judicial system.

Today, he is held in a military hospital, charged with ordering the killings of protesters and awaiting retrial. The court system in Egypt has played an essential role in the turbulent times that followed Mubarak’s ouster. The elected president after Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi, who was deposed by the army, sits in prison today, sentenced to death.

Under current President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the courts have jailed tens of thousands of opposition figures. He claims the decisions are out of his hands.

Tonight, special correspondent Nick Schifrin examines the role of the justice system in Egyptian society for our series 5 Years On.

NICK SCHIFRIN: No Egyptian family has fought for justice more tirelessly than the Seifs.

Alaa Abdel Fattah is a symbol of the revolution, imprisoned by the current government. His sister Mona Seif leads campaigns against military trials of civilians. And last month, Sanaa Seif, the youngest daughter, was the only left-wing demonstrator to commemorate the Arab Spring’s fifth revolution. Her jackets reads, “The January 25 revolution continues.”

The siblings have learned their lessons from their parents.

LAILA SOUEIF, Justice Reform Activist: The justice apparatus is completely failed at the moment.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Their mother is Laila Soueif, one of Egypt’s most prominent activists. That’s her on the right yelling at plainclothes police. She has protested against six governments over 42 years.

LAILA SOUEIF: It’s my duty to do this, so that at least everyone remembers that they do not have the right to push people around.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Their father, Ahmed Seif, was Egypt’s leading human rights lawyer. Today, Laila believes the judiciary is out of control.

LAILA SOUEIF: That they have this crazy idea that you can teach a whole population manners by putting them in jail.

NICK SCHIFRIN: A judge sentenced Alaa to five years in prison for protesting against what he saw as the military taking over the courts. Sanaa was sentenced to three years for protesting against a law that bans protests.

Mona has been detained, and is currently awaiting a suspended sentence.

MONA SEIF, Justice Reform Activist: The judges have become self-motivated to squash opposition movement and to imprison any rebelling youth that they don’t think are accommodating to the conservative ideas.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Those conservative, to the point of iron-fist ideas are embodied by the man they call the executioner judge, Nagy Shehata. Last January he ratified a mass death sentence of 183 suspects, despite evidence they’d been tortured.

He sentenced 230 people at once to life in prison, even though police killed many of the demonstrators.

JUDGE NAGY SHEHATA (through interpreter): I confirm, execution for the crimes they are accused of. And the accused are obliged to pay the trial fees. The session is adjourned.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And when activist Ahmed Douma asked Shehata about his personal Facebook page, the judge added three years to his sentence.

LAILA SOUEIF: This is just sloppy work. And when you’re a judge, sloppy work is a crime.

NICK SCHIFRIN: It wasn’t always like this.

Before the revolution, Egyptians took pride in their judiciary as fiercely independent. Today, judges and their defenders say the judiciary is still independent, but focused on one specific thing: maintaining peace and security.

DAVID RISLEY, Former Legal Adviser, U.S. Embassy, Cairo: And the judiciary value order and public safety almost above everything else.

NICK SCHIFRIN: For four years David Risley was the U.S. legal adviser and diplomatic attache to Egypt’s judiciary. He believes Egyptian judges see violence on the streets and believe their job is to restore stability.

DAVID RISLEY: Some judges simply felt that they are doing what needed to be done for the good of the country, judicious or not.

NICK SCHIFRIN: “PBS NewsHour” called dozens of Egyptian judges. Each declined to be interviewed. Western diplomats say the judges, in private, argue that Egyptians are willing to give up some rights to keep order. But the Seifs argue, even if that’s true, today’s judges fail to deliver.

MONA SEIF: They have had their 100 percent freedom to do whatever they want to do for the past two years. And order has not returned. Justice has not prevailed.

LAILA SOUEIF: You do not bring security or stability by being unprofessional. You bring security and stability by behaving like the judge who sentenced my husband. That — that is bringing security and stability.

NICK SCHIFRIN: When Ahmed Seif was arrested in 1983, his judge investigated whether he had been tortured.

LAILA SOUEIF: And he threw out the evidence that was obtained by torture. There was a certain amount of adherence to the law.


LAILA SOUEIF: Now? Now you have judges who are not just unprofessional. They’re ignorant. They don’t know the — they don’t know the statues of the law.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But just like in the U.S., Egypt’s higher courts can overrule lower courts’ harsh sentences. And that is exactly what has happened.

DAVID RISLEY: On appeal, these sorts of injudicious mass convictions, mass death penalties are being consistently reversed, that it makes one wonder whether the real purpose in these mass convictions is not so much to — an expectation that the defendants who are convicted will ultimately be punished, but rather that they are tied up and detained for an extended period of time.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Mona fights those lengthy detentions. She and other activists attempt to document Egypt’s 40,000 political prisoners. They’re trying to shine a light on a system they call a black box.

MONA SEIF: You can have a first-degree relative who is now detained, faces prosecution, and gets sentences, and you can’t — and you don’t even know. And you don’t even check on him or get a lawyer to attend with him.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Because no one has access to…


MONA SEIF: Because no one has access to it.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The Seifs have been willing to put everything into the cause, their children their health, their freedom. The two parents and three children have been to jail a combined 10 times. It hasn’t been easy.

Ahmed died when Alaa and Sanaa were both in prison. The campaign to release them was titled Injustice Has Taken Them Away From Us.

What is it like to have two of your children in prison? Then how can you even handle that?

LAILA SOUEIF: You just turn it into practicalities. You get through a day at a time.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Because if you didn’t?

LAILA SOUEIF: And I don’t know how you would live.

The bright spot? Laila’s first grandson, Alaa’s son, 4-year-old Khalid (ph). His toys fill her living room.

LAILA SOUEIF: That’s about the only thing that consistently — that makes me consistently happy at the moment.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Is your grandson.

Laila shows me her favorite family photos. In one, Khalid is laughing with his mother. His father, above them, is actually just a poster. Khalid was born when Alaa was in prison. Mona was born when her father was in prison.

Despite all of the sacrifices your family has made, it’s been worth it?

She says it will be worth it if their sacrifices today mean her grandson doesn’t have to fight the same battles or go to the same jails tomorrow.

Nick Schifrin, PBS NewsHour, Cairo.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tune in tomorrow night for Nick’s final piece on the role of women in the tumultuous five years since the revolution.