HRW calls for Egypt to transfer Zeitoun trial to criminal court

The trial before Egypt’s State Security Court of 25 defendants accused of membership in a terrorist organization fails to protect the due process rights of defendants, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today.  

A judge adjourned yesterday the trial of what is known as the "Zeitoun cell" until 20 March in order to give the defense team a chance to review police investigation reports.

“The government’s reliance on a state security court that lacks fair trial protections means the verdict will be unsound,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch in a press release. “If the prosecution feels it has sufficient evidence, it should bring this case before a regular Egyptian criminal court.”

According to the New York-based rights group, the families of defendants had only been able to see them during their interrogations before the prosecutor and were not allowed to approach the cage where the defendants are required to sit during the trial.  

State Security Investigations (SSI) officers arrested 24 of the defendants–22 Egyptians and two Palestinians–on 26 June, 1 July, and 2 July, 2009. The 25th defendant is abroad and is being tried in absentia.

The Ministry of Interior announced in a 9 July news release that SSI officers had arrested the 24 men in connection with the armed robbery of a jewelry shop in May 2008 in Cairo’s Zeitoun district. The ministry also said the men had plans to attack Suez Canal shipping. The robbery led to the murder of the shop’s owner, a Coptic Christian, and three employees, prompting the media to call the case the “Zeitoun cell” trial.

HRW said that the SSI officers detained the men without charge for several weeks, using consecutive 15-day detention orders, permitted under Egypt emergency law, which has been in place since 1981.

Until yesterday’s session, according to the HRW’s statement, defense lawyers had been unable to meet with defendants in private.

“Defense lawyers Khaled Ali and Haitham Mohamedein told Human Rights Watch that the state security prosecutor had interrogated their clients, Mohamed Fahim Hussein and Khaled Abdelhalim respectively, in their absence,” the statement said.  

HRW also said that some of the defendants told the prosecutor that “state security forces had tortured them in custody and obtained confessions from them under torture about plans to make weapons to conduct attacks.”

“There is no justification for failing to provide these men with a fair trial, whatever the charges against them,” Whitson said. “All defendants are entitled to consult with counsel, and all allegations of torture must be investigated in a timely manner.”

HRW warned that trials before emergency State Security Courts “fail to meet international standards on due process because they do not provide the right to an appeal.”  

“Governments have a right to protect their citizens from terrorist attacks,” Whitson said. “But real security will not come from a conviction in an unfair trial.”

Egypt’s emergency law, under which the 25 men were originally detained, allows for prolonged incommunicado detention. Emergency law is in contravention of international legal standards on the right to a fair trial and to adequate representation by a lawyer, according to the HRW.  


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