Egyptian court run-around thwarts defendants seeking to appeal


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Hundreds of high-profile court cases, including one involving former President Mohammed Morsi, were delayed Wednesday for logistical reasons that defense lawyers said were colored by political considerations and an effort to suppress defendants’ rights to due process.

Morsi, whom the country’s military ousted in July, was scheduled to appear before a court at Cairo’s Police Academy on charges of killing protesters. But the proceeding was postponed until Feb. 1 after officials said they couldn’t fly Morsi via helicopter from his prison cell in Alexandria because of foggy weather.

That delay pushed the case until after two key upcoming events, the referendum next Tuesday on a new constitution and the third anniversary Jan. 25 of the uprising that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

“The decision was inspired by the political circumstances – which require that he doesn’t appear,” defense lawyer Osama el-Helw was quoted in news reports as saying. Morsi’s “appearance will inspire his supporters.”

Across town, scores of appeals by people who’ve been detained went unheard because defense attorneys couldn’t find the courtrooms where hearings were to be held.

Lawyers said the government had moved or adjourned sessions without notifying them, a cat-and mouse game that’s becoming increasingly common since the government began to crack down on the Muslin Brotherhood specifically and political dissent in general.

Among the unheard cases were those of Ahmed Maher, one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, and political activist Ahmed Douma. The two men were sentenced last month to three years in prison for holding a protest against the new government without its permission, a crime since November.

In addition, motions for release pending trial had been rejected for 385 Morsi supporters who were arrested Aug. 14 during violent clashes between protesters and security forces. At least 1,100 people were killed during protests that day.

The 385 prisoners had been held for five months on charges that include inciting violence, rioting, assaulting public and private property, belonging to a banned group and disabling the constitution, according to the lawyers.

“They are accusing all 385 with the same crimes,” lawyer Mustafa Diab, who’s 31, told McClatchy as he stood with colleagues outside a courtroom. “All of those accusations are only based on the detectives’ investigations. There are no evidence or witnesses in the case.”

Cairo’s appeals court, in the Tora prison complex, was set Wednesday to hear the cases, or so the lawyers thought. But as is becoming frequent, the lawyers who gathered for the appeal found that the cases had been moved without notice to another court. That left the lawyers stumped about not only who’d hear the cases, but also the whereabouts of their clients, who’d been transferred to wherever the cases were to be heard.

Wednesday morning, a bevy of lawyers stood outside the Tora complex and waited to be let in. Some had traveled across the country to make their case for the Morsi protesters. Others were representing Maher and Douma. The two camps disagree politically, but that didn’t matter as they swapped information on whether the hearings would take place. No one knew.

A police officer approached them and curtly said: “The cases have been postponed till tomorrow. If there were going to be trials today, there would be more security.”

Expecting this, the lawyers in both camps had stationed colleagues at other appeals court buildings. They then called those courthouses to see whether their defendants and cases would be heard there instead.

The government has “certain tactics to distract you and slow the case,” Maher lawyer Mohamed Gahin explained. “We have lawyers at two courts. We can play, too.”

Gahin learned that the case had indeed been delayed until Thursday. The protesters’ lawyers weren’t so lucky. It took them hours to discover the status of their cases.

Upon realizing the appeals wouldn’t be heard at Tora, the group moved downtown to the High Court, where a second batch of lawyers had heard that their clients’ cases could proceed.

In a long, narrow and mildew-ridden hallway in one of Egypt’s biggest court compounds, at least 30 lawyers gathered in front of a courtroom waiting for the new court’s decision on their appeals.

A deputy prosecutor told the lawyers to go to another administrative office in the compound. Once there, they were told that the session should have taken place in the court for District 17 but that all the judges had left. Yet when the lawyers scurried to District 17, they found the judges still there, so they asked the judges to consider their appeal. The judges huddled to consider what to do.

“Probably the decision will be to imprison the lawyers and reject the appeal,” one of the lawyers joked as they waited.

After two hours, a court worker came out from behind a huge wooden door and said, “Appeal of the 385 has been rejected.” There was no further explanation.

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @AminaIsmail, @nancyayoussef

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